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The Autonomy of Science

Keith Bustos

Introduction

Even though neither Thomas Kuhn nor Vannevar Bush uses the language of autonomy, it seems
as though their conceptions of normal science and pure science (respectively) meet the basic
requirements of autonomous science: having both a constitution and a governing structure. Each
author provides a slightly more detailed conception of certain components of autonomous
science than the other. Specifically, Kuhn offers a clear description of a paradigm, which I take
to be a sort of constitution for determining science; and Bush offers a clear description of the
National Research Foundation, which I take to be a sort of governing structure. Combined, these
two conceptions of science appear to offer a fairly detailed account of autonomous science.
However, neither Kuhn nor Bush offers a sufficient safeguard to protect the autonomy of
science. That is, once science becomes professionalized, whereby the majority of contributing
individuals are career scientists (opposed to hobby scientists), it can no longer be autonomous
without appropriate safeguards; and once science loses its autonomous capacity, it becomes a
mere handmaiden of society.1 Consequently, normal science and pure science cannot be
completely autonomous specifically due to their highly instrumental value for solving social
problems.

Characterizing Autonomous Science

Conception of Autonomy

It is not the aim of this essay to defend any one conception of autonomy that might apply to
organizations or institutions. Instead, I will offer a generalized conception of autonomy that
focuses mainly on the notion of sovereignty, which may also be understood as self-governance
or self-determination.2 As it applies to institutions, autonomy implies that the institution has the
authority to enact its own governing principles and manage its own affairs without undue
influence from external agents or institutions.3 So, in this essay, I assume that an autonomous
institution is one that is primarily subject to its own authority, which means that it has the

1
I barrow the term hobby scientists from Terence Kealey, who describes this term as referring to those scientists
who engage in science merely for the fun of it without regard for making money from it. Kealey claims that the loss
of hobby scientists such as Lovoisier, Darwin, and Einstein has been unfortunate since “they tended to be
spectacularly good.” Hobby scientists were apparently exemplary scientists since they engaged in scientific
endeavors for their own sake and not for any socially applicable purposes. Kealey thinks that professional scientists
are leery of doing science for its own sake since they need to produce successful results in order to retain their
funding. On the other hand, hobby scientists are free to develop their scientific paradigms in any way they choose
since they are unaccountable. And since they are unaccountable, they are motivated not by financial success, but by
the mere love of science. So, as it seems, hobby scientists may be the only sort of scientist that has the unregulated
freedom to pursue scientific knowledge in all of its forms, regardless of its practical application. Terence Kealey,
The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 74-75 & 86-89.
2
Andrews Reath, “Autonomy, ethical,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. Craig (London: Routledge,
1998) http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/L007SECT1 .
3
Ibid.

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Keith Bustos
capacity to determine itself through self-legislated rules – i.e., it enjoys a high degree of
independence.

Science as Autonomous

In my interpretation of Kuhn and Bush, if science is to truly be considered autonomous, it must


be sovereign; and to be so, science must meet the following two criteria.4 First, science must
establish for itself a constitution (set of governing principles) that determine the rules, methods,
and procedures that are to be used in the pursuit of knowledge. Such a constitution need not be
rigid and unchanging over time. Instead, it merely needs to embody the shared epistemic values
of a particular scientific community that serve as a standard to which individual scientists can
appeal to settle disputes within a particular community. Having such a constitution is necessary:
if the rules, methods, procedures, or goals are forced onto science by some external institution,
then scientists ceases to act from the self-legislated principles of science and begin acting from a
heteronomous will.
Second, if science is to be sovereign, it must have a central governing structure that will
act as a determinant and will offer a means of adjudicating disputes within a given scientific
community. Without a governing structure, scientists may have no way of settling fundamental
disagreements which might cause factions to form, rendering science vulnerable to being
determined by some external force or will. So, in order for science to be autonomous, it must
have both a self-determined constitution and a central governing structure that critically assess
values and goals to determine if they accord with the constitution so as to grant unity and
cohesion to the purpose of science.
Now that I have offered a semblance of what autonomous science might be, we will see
how well this sketch matches up with both Kuhn’s conception of normal science and Bush’s
conception of pure science.

Kuhn’s Normal Science

The Nature of Normal Science

Normal science refers to the state of science in which scientists work from a shared paradigm.
Normal science consists of developing a particular paradigm; and paradigms that are not fully
developed leave much work to be done concerning the “determination of significant fact,

4
I want to stress the point that neither of the two authors that I deal with in this essay explicitly discussed the notion
of autonomous science in their writings. Further, it may even be the case that both never actually thought that
science could be understood as autonomous, or they might have even thought such a concept to be nonsensical.
Despite these possibilities, it remains that Kuhn and Bush both seemed to have thought that normal science and pure
science (both hereafter referred to as science) should be autonomous. That is, science should be independent in the
sense that it determines for itself what the goals of science should be. One of the goals that both Kuhn and Bush
thought to be important to science was the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Through determining the sorts of
knowledge to be pursued, science should use the knowledge it produces primarily for its own sake and not
necessarily to solve social problems.

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matching facts with theory, and articulation of theory.”5 And the methods used to complete such
work are determined by the paradigm itself.
Furthermore, paradigms dictate the problems to be solved by scientific research. Such
problems admit of a definite solution. While social problems are important to solve, Kuhn
believed that scientists should focus on a specific class of problems, namely puzzles. Through
solving the puzzles set by a particular paradigm, scientists are able to hone their individual skills
and ingenuity. Kuhn claims that the scientist who succeeds in becoming an expert puzzle-solver
finds the challenge of future puzzles “an important part of what usually drives him on.”6
The solutions to puzzles constitute the end at which normal science aims. Put differently, the
intrinsic value of science is discovered through the process of solving puzzles, since the solutions
themselves are intrinsically valuable.7 This is an interesting point since it implies that the aim of
science is not necessarily to develop knowledge or technology that is instrumental in solving
social problems such as a cure for cancer or military defense technology. Kuhn explicitly says
that one of the reasons that paradigms break down, resulting in an ensuing state of crisis, is that
focusing on such social problems puts undue pressure on normal science to produce socially
useful results.8 To focus on socially pressing problems, which do not admit of a definite or
coherent solution, normal science would not be able to focus on its main item of business – to
solve puzzles defined by a particular paradigm – and thus becomes inefficient in fully developing
the paradigm.9 So, the business of a scientist working within normal science is to narrowly focus
on developing his own paradigm by solving the puzzles that it alone provides.
Since scientists working within normal science, according to Kuhn, are to focus mainly on
developing a paradigm, the normal scientific community enjoys a degree of insulation from “the
demands of the laity and everyday life.”10 That is, paradigms can actually insulate a scientific
community from social concerns that are not reducible to puzzle form because the paradigm does
not provide scientists with the conceptual and instrumental tools needed to solve social problems.
Consequently, the scientific community need not worry about the concerns and perceptions of
non-scientific communities, unlike the artist or politician who hunger for lay praise, and can
freely focus on those problems that individual scientists believe they can actually solve.11 And in
this respect, scientists need not defend or justify their choice of research problems as long as they
are conducted in the spirit of developing a particular paradigm.12
More importantly, scientific communities need to be afforded insulation from social
concerns, resulting in a sort of independence from the social realm, to ensure that the scientific
community determines the progress of science through revolutions. As mentioned above, Kuhn
acknowledges that a crisis can be precipitated by social pressures, which he apparently finds
unsatisfactory; he also realizes that scientific revolutions can be caused by a non-scientific
authority through some external organization wielding the critical authority to determine the
outcome of paradigm debates. Although, Kuhn acknowledges that this may actually occur, we

5
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press,
1996), 24.
6
Ibid., 36.
7
Ibid., 36-37.
8
Ibid., 69.
9
Ibid., 37 & 166.
10
Ibid., 164.
11
Ibid.
12
Ibid.

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must not call such a revolution a scientific revolution for it was not determined by an
autonomous scientific community.13
To summarize, Kuhn believed that scientists should not be directly involved in solving social
problems. The only time that normal science should contribute to the solution of social problems
is when scientific research yields information applicable to such problems. Specifically,
scientists are to focus mainly on developing a particular paradigm, which defines the puzzles to
be solved and the rules for solving them. If scientist fail to focus primarily on developing their
paradigm they risk producing knowledge that is directed not at scientific progress, but at solving
problems related to social concerns.
Kuhn’s normal science apparently meets the minimum requirements of autonomous science
for the following reasons. First, normal science has a sort of constitution engendered by a
particular paradigm. Although the constitution is not clearly defined by a paradigm, it stands as a
guide for establishing the rules, methods, and procedures that are to be implemented and used in
the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Second, Kuhn thought that normal science ought to be
governed or directed by the community of scientists adhering to similar goals and values. That is,
disputes and other normative issues concerning the methods to be used or the goals to be pursued
within normal science are adjudicated by the entire scientific community operating under the
same paradigm. So, because Kuhn’s conception of normal science has both a constitution
(paradigm) and a governing structure (scientific community), it can be considered autonomous.

Critique of Normal Science

Kuhn seemed to assume that normal science is intrinsically valuable, since it creates its own
value by producing solutions to the puzzles determined by a particular paradigm. These solutions
are considered valuable in themselves, since they are sought for their own sake or at least for the
sake of normal science itself, thereby contributing to the intrinsic value of normal science. An
ancillary benefit derived from such intrinsically valuable solutions may be their utility in
perpetuating the development of normal science. And, from a perspective external to normal
science, these solutions could be used by institutions within the social realm to solve pressing
problems. Again, the goal of normal science is not to produce the latter sort of benefit, but it may
do so by serendipitously arriving at solutions for social problems.
If my characterization of Kuhn’s position is correct, it is not clear how Kuhn envisioned
the continued existence and progress of science without it being legitimized by society. That is,
the nature of normal science seems to be an idealistic notion of the role of science in society. It is
idealistic since such an autonomous institution seems to lack the social utility needed to be
legitimized by the public. Generally speaking, all of the institutions within a society possess
some utility, i.e. they are a means of producing something socially valued. And the extent to
which a particular institution is valuable depends on the sentiments and actions of individuals
within a particular society. One of the most prolific ways that individuals or society demonstrates
the perceived value of a particular institution is to allocate money to it. Those institutions or
conventions that are under-funded are typically (but not always) deemed by the society to be of
little to no value – at least relative to other institutions or conventions competing for limited
resources.
13
Ibid., 167.

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As it seems, in order for science to legitimize itself, and thereby gain much needed
funding, it must either be supported directly by the scientists themselves, which may be the case
with hobby scientists, or scientists must demonstrate how certain programmes or research
agendas are fruitful for either society or those who are willing to fund the research. To do the
latter, scientists might try to convince investors that scientific knowledge is intrinsically
valuable, a value similar to the development of the arts; or they might try to demonstrate the
instrumental value of scientific knowledge by demonstrating its application to social causes. One
potentially negative consequence of legitimizing itself through its potential social utility is that it
risks being dominated by social pressures if its autonomy is not secured by some means. Such a
means may take the form of a strong governing structure that would serve to adequately insulate
scientists for social demands. Unfortunately, Kuhn seemingly takes a lassies-fair approach to
establishing and securing the autonomy of normal science by charging the community of
scientists with the authority and responsibility to ensure that normal science continues to be
autonomous. Such a lassies-fair approach is far too egalitarian to actually ensure the autonomy of
normal science in a modern world such as ours that demands the fruits of scientific knowledge.
So, without a governing structure possessing the power to insulate the scientific community from
social demands, normal science risks losing its autonomy in lieu of legitimacy; and if such a
situation obtains, normal science becomes a mere tool of social progress.

Pure Science

Vannevar Bush appears to have held a similar position to Kuhn’s insofar as he thought that
science should have at least some level of autonomy. Specifically, Bush’s conception of pure
science (or basic research) appears to have a striking resemblance to Kuhn’s notion of normal
science.14 Despite its similarities to normal science, pure science may have a better chance of
becoming an autonomous science especially due to the implementation of a strong governing
structure within science.

Pure Science

Vannevar Bush was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during
World War II, and was instrumental in the development and proliferation of scientific research in
the United States. In November, 1944, President Roosevelt asked Bush (among other things) to
devise a plan to aid research activities by public and private organizations that could promote
economic growth, military defense, and medical knowledge.15 In order to meet such a request,

14
Throughout Science: The Endless Frontier Bush uses the terms pure science, pure research, basic science, and
basic research interchangeably. This can be seen on pages 13 and 75 when he is describing the importance of basic
research (page 13) and what pure science entails (page 75).
15
Specifically, President Roosevelt asked Bush to consider the following four questions. (1) “What can be done,
consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world
as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war efforts to scientific knowledge?” (2)
“With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for
continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?” (3) “What can the
Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?” (4) “Can an
effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the

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Bush thought that it was imperative to guarantee adequate funding for pure science, which would
produce a pool of abstract knowledge that public and private organizations could pull from in
order to fulfill Roosevelt’s goals.16 As a result, Bush emphasized the need for pure science.
Bush considered pure science to entail scientists being engaged in research that is
“performed without thought of practical ends.”17 He continues,

It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This
general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important
practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one
of them. The pure scientist may not be at all interested in the practical application
of his work; yet the development of important new industries depend primarily on
a continuing vigorous progress of pure science.18

As depicted in the preceding quotation, it seems that pure science is what Kuhn thought scientists
ought to be engaged in, since it produces knowledge that perpetuates the further development of
a particular paradigm while ignoring the practical implications of such knowledge. However,
despite this similarity, Bush seems to have realized that pure science was not to necessarily be
revered only for its intrinsic value. Instead, he also realized that pure science played an integral
role is solving social problems – i.e., it possessed a significant level of instrumental value.
Furthermore, Bush believed that the center of pure science should be established within
the academic realm, for academic institutions insulate scientists from “commercial necessity”
and grant them a considerable degree of intellectual freedom.19 In other words, academic
institutions provide an environment in which scientists might become reacquainted with hobby
science.
Bush realized that in order to save pure science from becoming overly burdened with
directly solving social problems, a governing structure must be created to direct scientific
operations and to inform various branches of government about the existing policies and budgets
of organizations engaged in scientific research; and such a structure should be comprised of
“disinterested scientists who have no connection with any of the affairs of any Government
agency.”20 Bush apparently realized that pure science needed to be protected from political and
social pressures. Thus, in order to limit political interference in the direct determination of
scientific research, Bush proposed the creation of the National Research Foundation (NRF),
which would be charged with the special authority to grant researchers the freedom to dictate
how funding would be allocated within the scientific community. 21 Ultimately, the NRF would
serve as the governing structure of the scientific community allowing pure science to continue to
be autonomous.

continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done
during the war?” Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier (Washington: United States Government Printing
Office, 1945), v.
16
G. Pascal Zachary, Endless Frontier (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997), 223.
17
Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1945),
75
18
Ibid.
19
Ibid., 14.
20
Ibid., 15.
21
G. Pascal Zachary, Endless Frontier (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1997), 223; Vannevar Bush, Science: The
Endless Frontier (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1945), 32-33.

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So, it seems that Bush’s conception of pure science fits nicely with Kuhn’s conception of
normal science, since both conceptions require that science be autonomous insofar as the
knowledge produced is primarily used to perpetuate pure science itself. Furthermore, pure
science can be understood as adhering to a sort of constitution, albeit very thin, that directs pure
scientists to pursue scientific knowledge “without thought of practical ends;” and pure science
has a strong governing body (the NRF). This latter feature of pure science is a prudent step to
ensure the autonomy of pure science. The point of divergence between these two views is that
Kuhn apparently was completely disinterested in the social applications of the scientific
knowledge produced by normal science. Bush, on the other hand, understood that pure science
possessed the potential to produce knowledge that could be used to solve many of the social
problems facing our nation toward the end of WWII. This is not to say that Bush perceived pure
science to be the handmaiden of society, but instead he realized that pure science was
intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.

Critique of Pure Science

Apparently pure science might not have been insulated enough from the postwar demands of our
nation to be truly autonomous, as it proved to play too much of an instrumental role in the
solution of socially pressing problems for it to primarily be valued intrinsically. While
establishing the intrinsic value of pure science by offering reasons to value it for its own sake,
Bush simultaneously offered reasons for the government to increase its expenditures for pure
science, which focused mainly on the social benefits that it could help produce.22 This seems like
the beginning of the end of autonomous pure science. Recall that within the confines of pure
science, scientific knowledge is sought for its own sake or even for the perpetuation of pure
science. However, when pure science becomes dependent upon public funds it runs the risk of
being dominated by social demands. Bush realized this as he warns, “it is important to emphasize
that there is a perverse law governing research: Under the pressure for immediate results, and
unless deliberate policies are set up to guard against this, applied research invariably drives out
pure…it is pure science which deserves and requires special protection and specially assured
support (italics his).”23
Even thought Bush envisioned the NRF as having the authority to grant autonomy to the
scientific community thereby allowing the latter to determine which research projects would
receive funding, it seems that pure science might not ever enjoy the degree of autonomy that
Bush envisioned. In theory, the NRF may have been able to retain a certain degree of autonomy
for pure science, but practically speaking, it does not seem possible that pure science could ever
possess a high degree of autonomy while being intimately dependent upon government and
private funding. In order for pure science to be highly autonomous, it would have to be valued
and funded primarily for its own sake so as to eliminate the potential for undue external
influences. However, pure science appears to be far too instrumentally valuable to society for it
to be valued primarily for its own sake. Consequently, it may not be accurate to consider pure
science completely autonomous.

22
Vannevar Bush, Science: The Endless Frontier (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1945),
13-15 & 16.
23
Ibid., 77.

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Conclusion

I have argued that in order for science to be autonomous, it must be sovereign. In order to be
sovereign, science must embody two necessary criteria: it must have a constitution of some sort
that serves as a directive for setting the rules, methods, procedures, and the knowledge to be
pursued; and it must have a governing structure charged with the authority to critically assess the
values and goals of science and to help scientists act in accord with the scientific constitution.
Both Kuhn’s normal science and Bush’s pure science meet these minimum criteria of
autonomous science at least at the theoretical level. However, once these two conceptions of
science are tested in real-world simulations, they fail to retain their autonomy mainly because of
both men’s laissez-faire assumptions built into their respective conceptions of science. So, had
Kuhn and Bush implemented stronger protections for the autonomy of normal science and pure
science (respectively) these conceptions of science could have become sorts of autonomous
science not only in the theoretical realm but in the practical realm as well.