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Applied Kuhn: The Berkeley/BP Project

September 16, 2009
by Keay Davidson

If it’s to escape the fate of so many normal sciences, the Energy Biosciences Institute must be continually monitored by outside observers, including non-scientists.

It’s too early to tell whether the joint Berkeley-BP project represents a potential scientific and technological paradigm shift, or is a version of the same old paradigm of the automotive sciences. It could become the former. Unfortunately, thanks to its very scale and nature, the project risks becoming the latter—becoming, that is, a roadblock rather than a road to fundamental societal change.

The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) might serve a historic and useful function if it successfully develops novel biofuels that will diminish our reliance on fossil fuels—but without (as critics fear) increasing our reliance on new fuels that will consume scarce croplands and water supplies or reinforce our national addiction to cars. But to create socially more transformative solutions to energy crises and climate change, we may need to shift our techno-cultural “paradigm” by persuading people to get out of cars—to walk, bike, or use mass transit—and by designing “greener” cities.

Because of EBI’s very scale and its reliance on corporate funding, critics are justified in fearing that it might become the institutional embodiment of a Kuhnian “normal science” of the most narrow-minded sort. The worthy pursuit of novel biofuels is hardly the only possible solution to climate change; nor is it necessarily the most effective and long-lasting one.

This doesn’t mean EBI is necessarily a bad idea. It might even save the world. But if it’s to escape the fate of so many normal sciences, the organization must be well managed and continually monitored by outside observers, including nonscientists. A larger share of EBI’s bank account should finance social scientists who will investigate not only the social impacts of bio­fuels, but also ways to lessen society’s need for fossil- and biomass-derived liquid fuels as a whole—methods that might, conceivably, put the oil industry out of business.

As an added benefit, social scientists should study EBI itself. In recent decades, sociologists and anthropologists of science have spent years engaged in firsthand observation of day-to-day developments within scientific institutions such as the Salk Institute, particle accelerator laboratories, biotech corporations, nuclear weapons facilities, and gravity-wave labs. In the process, these analysts have illuminated our understanding of how science and scientists work day to day, including weighing anomalous data, negotiating new theories, distinguishing credible from dubious measurements, and consulting with peer-review colleagues. EBI offers a unique opportunity to study such an institution’s internal growth and dynamics virtually from the start.

By observing what happens inside EBI during the years to come, social scientists could test the various theories (including Kuhn’s) about how scientific hypotheses and knowledge evolve over time. The resulting reports might clarify one of the most emotional and ideological issues within the field of science studies: Do scientific discoveries evolve via purely “scientific” means? Or are they molded, even “constructed” by their larger institutional, cultural, economic, and political contexts? Kuhn hinted at similar questions in The Copernican Revolution 50 years ago, as Sputnik zipped overhead. Nowadays, as we head back to the Moon, they remain unresolved.

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