Axe 1, Epistemological presuppositions of the autonomy of science

Identification and evaluation of the validity of the philosophical presuppositions underlying the defense of the autonomy of science.

The specific objective of this first task is twofold. From an historical perspective, the aim is to identify the various presuppositions and arguments that have traditionally underlie, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that scientists should be the ones in charge of setting research big priorities. Special attention will be paid to the evolution of these presuppositions and arguments in view of the evolution of conceptions about the aims of science.

To accomplish this first task, the methodology is the following: we first start from an analysis of the various historical forms of defense of the autonomy of science in authors such as Bacon, Humboldt, Condorcet, Mill, Dewey, Polanyi, Vanevar Bush and also well-known scientists who advocated freedom of research. Secondly, we investigate what are today the main presuppositions and arguments underlying advocacy of the autonomy of science (for instance arguments put forward during the World Congress for Freedom of Scientific Research held in 2009 at the European Parliament).

These preliminary inquiries will lead us to address in particular the following questions:

  • Does the “unpredictability argument” (one cannot foresee the output of a research program) necessarily lead to a defense of freedom of research?
  • To what extent is the separation between basic research and applied research still operational?
  • How sound is the argument of the “free market of ideas” invoked to advocate freedom of research?
  • How sound is the “political argument” according to which science should enjoy total independence from political powers? Etc.

A constant concern in the realization of this first task will be to deploy our philosophical investigations in precise contexts. For instance, the validity of the “free market of ideas” argument will be discussed with reference to the case of biomedical research, the validity of the “unpredictability” argument will be discussed from actual cases of finalized research having led to an increase of fundamental knowledge and the separability of basic research and applied research will be discussed in particular in the case of nanotechnology and synthetic biology.