Thursday, November 30, 2017

Goals of Science

Much of what gives science its particular character are its methods, such as the mutual refinement of theory and experiment, and cultivation of community through publications, conferences, the peer review process, etc. But science can also be characterized through its goals. What is science for? Why put effort and resources into science?

At the most fundamental level, science is about making our understanding of the world more accurate and more extensive. Science is exploration and learning. The result of science at this level is a community with a better understanding of the world and an increased capability to interact with the world.

At a more concrete level, science develops a map or picture of the world. Scientists document their understanding of the world not just as a tool to enable further exploration but also as a product or result. The result of science at this level is a collection of documents, databases, simulation programs etc., i.e. information about the world.

Even more concretely, science gives us the power to change the world: to cure diseases, to transform materials, to build airplanes and rockets, to communicate instantaneously around the globe. Whatever the problem, science can show us how to fix it. The result of science at this level is a changed world, a better world that contains medicines, machines, materials, etc. that make the world a better place.

Society changes and so does the institution of science. We need to prioritize our scientific efforts to maximize benefits within constraints. These three levels of goals should help us see that these benefits have a diverse nature. To some extent these levels are mutually reinforcing, for example one component of a better world is the availability of better laboratories which support enhanced exploration and understanding. On the other hand, for example, building a better world is quite expensive so funds will surely be diverted from exploratory efforts whose worldly benefits are uncertain. As political and environmental constraints tighten, these choices will become more difficult. A clearer understanding of their consequences should help us choose more wisely!