Paths of Curiosity – The Institutional Conditions of the New

Curiosity (to take up the situation in the laboratory), as indispensable as it is, is not sufficient by itself to bring forth the new. The play of possibilities cannot be limited to what happens in the protected space of the laboratory. And between the laboratory and the world outside—a world consisting of the broadest possible spectrum of funding enterprises and firms, stock exchanges, media, defense ministries, and mediation agencies— there are cracks and fissures through which the new wells up and seeks its paths in many directions. The individual researcher working in isolation on her experimental system has been supplemented and replaced by worldwide-networked, collaborating, and competing research groups that, despite constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research, still act within organizations that have to accept institutional directives. Research projects have to be planned and submitted to the appropriate body. A complex system of institutions to promote research evaluates and judges, allocates funds, appraised before-hand and reviews afterward, sets new strategic goals, and thus creates some of the institutional framework conditions that tie basic research to technological innovation and, more generally, that try to target the production of knowledge to make it the motor of economic competitiveness in a globalizing world. The unreleased tensions between scientific curiosity and the institutional attempts to take it and guide it in preset directions deter-mine the dynamics of the emergence of the new.

Objects of knowledge and epistemic things on the micro level of the laboratory correspond on the institutional level to what is called basic research, whereby the diversity of expressions like curiosity-driven, blue sky, uncommitted, oriented basic research or fundamental research, science-driven, and frontier research mirrors the differentiated discussions that, since Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush’s pioneering call at the end of World War II, have dominated American research policy in particular. The experimental system, the technological things, find their correspondence in the institutions that are needed to accompany the epistemic things on their usually long and never straight path ultimately to transform them into what, abbreviated as (primarily technological) innovation, is the dominant theme and goal of politics, industry, and targets for economic growth.

The paths open to curiosity are many or even too many, they are never straight or predictable, and it takes different and unpredictable amounts of time to traverse them. This is as true of Rheinberger’s case study, which focused on the test-tube system as an experimental system to research protein biosynthesis, as it is of another study on physical and biological developments that provided the prerequisites for the decisive breakthroughs in the diagnosis, prevention, and healing of cardiovascular and pulmonary illnesses. The new biomedical technologies of the 1970s were developed in the course of the increased attention paid to applied biomedicine under the administrations of U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Julius H. Comroe Jr. and Robert D. Dripps wanted to know what made them scientifically possible in the first place. The results of this study illustrate in an interesting way how multifarious, differently timed, and nonlinear are the paths of development that emerge from scientific discoveries—that is, from the new that appears in the laboratory and the iterative interplay between epistemic and technological things and that leads to new technologies for treating patients. The example of heart surgery is especially illuminating.

The availability of general anesthesia in 1846 led to an upswing in surgery, except for thorax surgery. Heart surgery did not follow until a hundred years later, and the first successful open-heart operation with a complete heart-lung bypass apparatus was carried out 108 years after the first use of ether anesthesia. What held heart surgery back? What knowledge was lacking before a surgeon could proceed to remedy a heart defect predictably and successfully? Initially, a reliable preparative diagnosis was needed for each patient whose heart needed repair. For this, selective angiocardiography was necessary. This in turn presupposed the earlier development of heart catheterization, which is based on the even earlier discovery of x-rays. But the surgeon also required an artificial heart-lung machine and a pump oxygenerator that could assume the function of the patient’s heart and lungs during cardiac arrest. This machine needed a design that did not harm the blood. For the oxygenera-tors to function, in turn, fundamental knowledge about the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood was needed. But the most perfect heart-lung machine would be useless if the blood coagulated while it was in use. So heart surgery had to wait for the discovery and purification of a potent, nontoxic anticoagulant—heparin.

Perhaps it was such detailed and impressive case studies that led Donald Stokes to divide the play of possibilities between basic research and technological innovation into four quad-rants. Perhaps he took inspiration from the exemplary behavior of a historical figure who mastered the play of possibilities between basic research and application, between epistemic and technological things, and between the individual researcher’s hard work and his entrepreneurial talent in managing a laboratory, developing relations to industry, and having a highly developed sense of what is now called PR or public relations. In Pasteur’s quadrant, curiosity and the wish to understand are expressed. The search for new scientific discoveries is coupled with the equally strong will to ask about later uses and thus about possible applications.

For a long period, basic research, which is associated with the field of “pure” curiosity and an understanding of the freedom of science nourished by the philosophy of science, was separated form application not only conceptually but also institutionally. The “linear model” on which Vannevar Bush’s thoughts are based thus conceives a temporal sequence moving from pure basic research through a phase of applied research to, finally, the commercialization and marketability of developed products. But already in the 1950s, doubts were arising that saw this model less as a valid generalization of the dynamics of the research process and more as the codification of an exceptional episode—namely, the model underlying research efforts in the United States during World War II. Other terms and classifications were suggested that were meant to lead beyond the doubts about whether a distinction could actually be made in practice between “pure” basic research and applied research and whether it made sense for a research policy to promote practical goals and encounter new fields like biomedicine and biotechnology.

The historian of science Gerald Holten took as a model Thomas Jefferson, who proposed and encouraged the extremely successful expedition of Lewis and Clark. Holton considered it an example of “Jefferson’s research policy,” according to which a specific research project takes place in a field in which there is a lack of scientific knowledge about the foundations of a social problem. President Jefferson, a friend of the sciences whose party had won the elections of 1800, realized that the expedition would have two results. It would be useful to basic research because Lewis and Clark would map the territory and return with unknown flora and fauna and observations about the behavior of the indigenous people of the American Northwest. But Jefferson was at least as clear about the political-practical side of the venture. The westward expansion of the young nation ensured that America would escape the supposedly inevitable fate of Europe, the trap of overpopulation and food short-ages. Jefferson was smart enough to emphasize the commercial side when touting his project to the Congress as funding body. To the Spanish authorities, which controlled part of the territory that the expedition passed through, he underscored the scientific aspect. Indeed, the mixture of both motives was decisive: he wanted to promote the best research, which promised no short-term use at all but which would take place in an area central to a recognized societal problem.

In Pasteur’s quadrant, which has an undeniable similarity to the geometry of the Newton-Bacon-Jefferson triangle used by Holton, two dimensions also come together. One is borne by the search for understanding of the foundations and is thus on the trail of the epistemic things, while the other has its eye on possible applications or their further use. Two other quadrants are devoted to Bohr (for whom practical use is irrelevant) and Edison (who is interested solely in practical use). The fourth, unnamed quadrant consists of systematic work on specific, particular problems that do not aim at either general understanding or application but that are part of a greater whole.

Today, the public’s interest in research policy is hardly at the center of attention. This was not always the case, even when research policy had more the character of an expedition or was a program auxiliary to military campaigns. The contemporaries of Jefferson and Pasteur, Karl Linné and Joseph Banks, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, understood very well what these expeditions served. The greater program consisted in the expansion of European colonial empires or served the Western striving for expansion in other ways. The contemporaries shared the fascination this created and probably also the economic and political goals. An expedition that set off into distant lands would retrieve nature and everything there was out there and settle it in gardens at home or bring it into the laboratory, where it would be dissected and magnified, taken apart and put back together again. The knowledge of how things functioned then served to bring newly produced or changed technological things, as well as plants and organisms, chemically synthesized substances and medications, from the laboratory to agriculture, gardens, hospitals, markets, and also future battlefields.

Pasteur’s quadrant and Jefferson’s research policy are more than classificatory exercises. They influence the direction in which scientific curiosity is guided and the ways that it can serve societal forces that are today soberly described as politics, economics, and society. They make clear the degree to which scientific, technological, and institutional practices are inseparably mixed with the local and temporal coordination of the contexts of their application. Scientific curiosity and the knowledge it produces are always situated, and yet they change their form, even if nature’s laws or certain principles of its function-ing remain the same. Concretely, knowledge adapts to the production site, which can be a university or industrial laboratory, a start-up company, or a consulting firm. The dynamics of knowledge production and of the growth of knowledge, the paths that scientiflc-technological curiosity must traverse to transform itself into innovations, are always multiple and never straightforward. The course they take runs from the first public announcements of their existence in scientific journals or in a patent through various material apparatuses and infrastructures to spaces in which the knowledge is tested and elaborated and collaborates or competes with other, locally created knowledge and technological things. It circulates through channels of exchange and information, diffuses into the many heterogeneous sites and contexts of use in which it materializes and finds temporary stability, until the next large or small wave comes, bringing change and expansion with it again.

The internal logic of scientific-technological curiosity sometimes begins with newly formulated theoretical or experimental questions or continued work on questions that others have left unsolved. But “pure” motives are rare because other impure purposes and goals already join this first logic. They can be experimental or instrumental—that is, still limited to the world and the work of the laboratory, the workbench, and their experimental systems. These in turn are inseparably tied to the logic of the institution that knows its aims, even if they may be only coarsely defined: just as Lewis and Clark knew what was expected of them when they sketched maps of the territories they surveyed and when they put together as well as possible an overall image of the country with its human, animal, and vegetable inhabitants, which aimed to express a claim to control.

Pasteur wanted to understand as well as control the micro-biological processes he had discovered. And to mention the social sciences, John Maynard Keynes wanted to understand how a modern economy functions on macro- and micro-levels and at the same time to develop a toolkit that would be suitable for interventions. For the generation of physicists and engineers that, in the framework of the Manhattan Project, worked feverishly to build the atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do so, the first step was to learn to understand the newly discovered processes of physics. Nonetheless, they were driven by the desire to implement this knowledge in practice immediately. Modern electronics requires comprehension of the processes of surface physics, just as molecular biology builds on the growing knowledge of genetics and proteomics to be able to intervene in, manipulate, and change natural processes. Under the respective institutional conditions of production, insatiable curiosity is not permitted to limit itself to understanding. Curiosity leads to changes; it includes them even if they are not completely known. Scientific-technological curiosity thereby creates new epistemic and technological things, new questions and instruments. To persuade others and to receive the necessary material resources, it creates not only instruments but also institutions whose logic it knows how to use for its own purposes. It creates contexts of application and spaces whose institutional practices combine with the practices of the experiment or the calculation in that logic of dual use that brings the world into the laboratory—to change the world from the laboratory.

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