The Institutionalization of the STEM Cycle

18 December 2014


Nobel prize

In a series of posts I have been outlining a theory of the particular variety of civilization that we find today, which I call industrial-technological civilization. These posts, inter alia, include:

The Industrial-Technological Thesis

Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels

Science, Knowledge, and Civilization

The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization

Chronometry and the STEM Cycle

What are the distinctive features of civilization as we know it today? Different socioeconomic structures and institutions can be found among different peoples and in different regions of the world. In one sense there is, then, no one, single civilization; in another sense, civilization has become a planetary endeavor, as every people and every region of the world falls under some socioeconomic organization of large-scale cooperation, and each of these peoples and regions abut other such peoples and regions, involving relationships that can only be addressed at the level of the institutions of large-scale socioeconomic cooperation. Thus a planetary civilization has emerged “in a fit of absence of mind,” as John Robert Seeley said of the British Empire. In a very different terminology, we might call this the spontaneous emergence of higher level order in a complex system.

We can think of civilization as the highest taxon (so far) of socioeconomic organization, the summum genus of which the individual human being is the inferior species, to use the Aristotelian language of classification. In between civilization and the individual come family, band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, though I should note that this taxonomic hierarchy seems to imply that a civilization of nation-states is the ultimate destiny of human history — not a point I would ever argue. In the future, civilization will undoubtedly continue to develop, but there is also the possibility of higher taxa emerging beyond civilization, especially with the expansion of civilization in space and time, and possibly also to other worlds, other beings, and other institutions.

For the time being, however, I will set aside my prognostications for the future of civilization to focus on civilization in the present, as we know it. Like any large and complex socioeconomic structure, contemporary industrial-technological civilization consists of a range of interrelated institutions, with the institutions differing in their character and structure.

The chartering of formal social institutions is part of the explicit social contract. Briefly, in The Origins of Institutions, I said, “An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution.” (In this post I also discussed how incipient institutions precede both formal and informal institutions.) In Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I made a distinction between the implicit social contract and the explicit social contact in this way:

“The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.”

The early portion of the industrial revolution may be characterized as a time of incipient institutions of industrial-technological civilization, in which the central structure of that civilization — the STEM cycle in its tightly-coupled form, in which science drives technology employed in engineering that produces better scientific instruments — has not yet fully emerged. Formal institutionalization of the socioeconomic structures usually long follows the employment of these structures in the ordinary business of life, but in industrial-technological civilization many of the developmental processes of civilization have been accelerated, and we can also identify the acceleration of institutionalization as a feature of that civilization. The twentieth century was a period of the consolidation of industrial-technological civilization, in which incipient institutions began to diverge into formal and informal institutions. How are formal and informal institutions manifested and distinguished in industrial-technological civilization?

Anyone who immerses themselves in a discipline soon learns that in addition to the explicit knowledge imparted by textbooks, there is also the “lore” of the discipline, which is usually communicated by professors in their lectures and learned through informal conversations or even overheard conversations. Moreover, there is the intuitively grasped sense of what lines of research are likely to prove fruitful and which are dead ends (what Claude Lévi-Strauss called scientific flair). This intuitive sense cannot be taught directly, but a wise mentor or an effective professor can direct the best students — not those merely present to learn the explicit knowledge contained in books, but those likely to go on to careers of original research — in the best Socratic fashion, acting as mid-wives to intuitive mastery. Within science, these are the formal and the informal institutions of scientific knowledge.

Similarly, anyone who acquires a technical skill, whether that skill is carpentry or designing skyscrapers, has, on the one hand, the explicit knowledge communicated through formal institutions, while, on the other hand, also “know now” and practical experience in the discipline communicated through informal institutions. Both technology and engineering involve these technical skills, and we usually find clusters of expertise and technical mastery — like the famous Swiss talent for watches — that correspond to geographical centers where know how and practical experience can be passed along. One gains once’s scientific knowledge at a university, but one acquires one’s practical acumen only once on the job and learning how things get done in the “real world.” These are the formal and informal institutions of technology and engineering.

Industrial-technological civilization has brought great wealth, even unprecedented wealth, and in a human, all-too-human desire to leave a legacy (a desire that is in no wise specific to industrial-technological civilization, but which is intrinsic to the human condition), significant endowments of this wealth have been invested in the creation of institutions that play fairly clearly defined roles within the STEM cycle.

In terms of both prestige and financial reward, perhaps the most distinguished institution that recognizes scientific achievement is the Nobel Prize, awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and later a memorial Nobel prize in economics was established. Mathematics is recognized by the Fields Medal. Apart from these most prestigious of awards, there are a great many private think thanks perpetuating an intellectual legacy, and the modern research university, especially institutions particularly dedicated to technology and engineering, is a locus of prestige and financial incentives clustered around both education and research.

Perhaps the best example of a formal institution integrated into the STEM cycle is the Stanford Research Institute. Their website states, “SRI International is a nonprofit, independent research and innovation center serving government and industry. We provide basic and applied research, laboratory and advisory services, technology development and licenses, deployable systems, products, and venture opportunities.” And that, “SRI bridges the critical gap between research universities or national laboratories and industry. We move R&D from the laboratory to the marketplace.” In a similar vein, Lockheed’s Skunkworks is known for its advanced military technology and the secretiveness of its operations, but Lockheed has recently announced that their Skunkworks is working on a compact fusion reactor.

Lockheed’s Skunkworks is an example of research and development within a private business enterprise (albeit a private enterprise with close ties to government), and it is in research and development units that we find the most tightly-coupled STEM cycles, in which focused scientific research is conducted exclusively with an eye to developing technologies that can be engineered into marketable products. The qualifier “marketable products” demonstrates how the STEM cycle is implicated in the total economy. From the perspective of the economist, mass market products are the primary driver of the economy, and better instruments for science are epiphenomenal, but as I have argued elsewhere, it is the technology and engineering that directly feeds into more advanced science that characterizes the STEM cycle, and everything else produced, whether mass market widgets or prestige for wealthy captains of industry, is merely epiphenomenal.

The economics of the STEM cycle that transforms its products into mass market widgets also points to the role of political and economic regulation of industries, which involves social consensus in the shaping of research agendas. Science, technology, and engineering are all regulated, and regulations shape the investment climate no less than regulations influence what researchers see as science that will be welcomed by the wider society and science that will be greeted with suspicion and disapproval. Controversial technologies, especially in biotechnology — reproductive technologies, cloning, radical life extension — make the public uneasy, investors skittish, and scientists wary. Few researchers can afford to plunge ahead heedless of the climate of public opinion.

In this way, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, driven by the STEM cycle set in its economic and political context, can be seen as an enormous social contract, with both implicit and explicit elements, formal and information institutions, and the different sectors of society each contributing something toward the balance of forces that competing in the sometimes fraught tension of the contemporary world. There could, of course, be other social contracts, different ways of maintaining a balance of competing forces. We can see a glimpse of these alternatives in non-western industrialized powers, as in China’s social contract. Whether or not any alternative social contract could prove as robust or as vital as that pioneered by the first nation-states to industrialize is an inquiry for another time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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