Research through small enterprise

We can imagine how the day-to-day work of scientists and that of engineers will converge at a point beyond both science and engineering. On one hand, the instruments and techniques used in scientific research will become so technologically advanced that researchers will practically be specialized engineers.

At the same time, technologies used in commercial products will push engineers toward the most uncertain frontiers of science. Engineers working on building quantum computers, for example, might need to do original research in physics. The technoscientific amalgamation will probably be relatively uninterested in finding theories to synthesize its sprawling results.

A kind of "silent" science will emerge where scientists will be preoccupied mainly with practical, disposable, ad hoc models. Explicit, narrative theories that have deep ontological significance or sweeping explanatory power will be more difficult than ever to create. That will make it even more tempting to choose research based on ultimate market value.

How could technoscientific research startups make a profit if their research is unrelated to commercial applications? Many companies could sell their research to other research companies rather than playing directly to the consumer market. A company might have projects ranging from the purest of research to partial prototypes of technologies not too far removed from commercial viability. Some startups might be involved in more than one project, and each project might stand at a different position on the spectrum of viability. Some small research startups may collectively form umbrella companies to finance larger projects.

If research results were mostly commercialized, wouldn't the vital exchange of scientific information be blocked? In some cases, research companies might be eager to publish their results as soon as possible because publication serves as a form of advertisement. Research companies might rely on speed and as well as copyright law to defend the value of their intellectual property, like purveyors of fresh fish. Even now, published results are often not the most recent or cutting-edge, and publication often serves more for archiving than for disseminating critical information.

How would technoscientific industry affect academia? The competition between technoscience and academia for grants would probably grow intense. Technoscientific startups might eventually gain an advantage in attracting talented, newly trained researchers who would otherwise look for positions in academia. Some research companies may even compete with universities for graduate students by selling specialized mentoring and apprenticeship services.

Universities, meanwhile, would probably come under pressure as students and their parents began to see themselves as consumers of educational services and began to demand that universities placed greater emphasis on teaching and less on research.

What impact would this have on society as a whole? Perhaps technoscience as an industry would create more high-paying jobs for scientifically trained people than academia does, and more people might then choose science as their life's work. It could be argued that having more scientists doesn't necessarily make better science.

The result would be that the storm of data would grow faster and fiercer. The technoscientific infrastructure would produce more technology even more advanced, which would lead to further advances in scientific instruments and techniques, meaning more data, and then yet more technology. The self-feeding spiral swirls madly upward.

Michael Webb, 2000

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