culture scientifique: pour quoi faire?”
by Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond
Alliage No 73, Printemps, 2014, p.17
Response by Roger F Malina
Physicist Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond in a carefully
argued contrarian essay asks the question, painful for me as a scientist,
whether too much scientific culture can be a bad thing, or at least whether we
are selling STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering
and Mathematics education) with fundamentally flawed argumentation.
He quotes three political leaders in France (Filipetti,
who in a recent public event reaffirmed that the promotion of science and
engineering, or STEM in U.S. vocabulary, is essential for three reasons:
democratic, cultural, and economic. The traditional argument for STEM is often
deployed with three sets of arguments:
1. We seek to have educated citizenry
who can make informed voting and other governance decisions on the many
societal questions that involve STEM. Therefore, more STEM is a good thing.
2. We need trained workforces for new industries that are emerging driven by
STEM innovation. There is a STEM workforce shortage. Therefore, more STEM
funding is a good thing.
3. Modern culture must appropriate STEM discoveries and knowledge to create
contemporary cultures that are scientifically robust. Therefore, more STEM
funding is a good thing.
In France the promotion of ‘scientific culture’ is a ‘regal’ function of the
state. Similarly, in recent decades in the USA science outreach is funded by
the government as part of a commitment to public education.
Levy-Leblond asks brutally whether the very idea of
‘scientific culture’ is not an oxymoron and promoting, out of context of other
areas of knowledge, it may be counterproductive.
Does a Scientific Culture exist?
Levy-Leblond’s first questioning, then, concerns the
concept of “scientific culture” and its promotion, or STEM outreach and
For one Levy-Leblond argues that within culture, sub-dividing
domains, such as scientific culture, may end up sterilizing the possible added
value from culture that scientific ideas undergo through cultural mutation and
transformation. The impact of the Galilean hypothesis, with its huge cultural
impact, did not come from ‘science outreach’ but total recontextualization
and transformation in the process of cultural embedding. Helga Nowotny (http://www.helga-nowotny.eu/), former President of
the European Research Commission, has made a similar call for ‘socially robust’
science that addresses not science education but the social embedding of
science as the key problem.
The promotion of ‘scientific culture,’ Levy-Leblond
argues, assumes that such a thing exists. For one, he argues that the
mercantile finality of governmental and industrial financing of science results
in a deep ‘de-culturation’ of scientific circles––that,
in effect, basic science is devalued in the current environment of commercialization
He goes further and argues that most scientists are largely culturally
ignorant. The training of scientists no longer includes the history or
philosophy of science; most scientists have caricatural
notions of the cultural meaning of their disciplines. He says the idea of a
meaningful ‘scientific culture’ shared by scientists is an empty promise (and
reading him almost feels that the last person who would want to do science
outreach is a scientist that has been trained in recent years because his or
her training promotes cultural ignorance ).
The situation, it seems to me, is more a situation of a complex network of
evolving sub-cultures, and there are regional and temporal differences. The
idea of a homogeneous ‘scientific culture’ that needs to be spread harks back
to the misleading ideas of C.P.Snow who artificially
dichotomized the question. Similarly attempting to isolate ‘basic’ or
‘fundamental’ science, curiosity driven and self-critical, from applied science,
as ideological and mercantile, over-simplifies the way that ideas originate, are
confirmed and used.
The complexities of the interactions of scientific and larger culture is
described for instance by Patrick McCray in his book The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite
Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless
Future (see my review at http://malina.diatrope.com/2012/12/26/the-visioneers-and-the-marketing-of-science/)
. There, McCray unpacks how high
technology and the popular imagination become joined at the hip but also the
emergence of a new kind of marketing of science.
One of the problems, of course, is the ‘impedance mis-match”
with teaching institutions structured around demarcated disciplinary areas and
the use of science in society that is inherently multi and inter-disciplinary.
The current debate of STEM and STEAM is a microcosm of the debate.
STEM and Economic Growth?
Levy- Leblond’s second strand concerns STEM and
Levy-Leblond takes on the received knowledge that
more STEM will lead to economic growth. That we need a growing workforce that
is STEM trained to take advantage of the innovation coming out of STEM research
and development. This line of argumentation relies on traditional ‘triple
helix’ innovation theory that couples the work of fundamental science in
universities, funded by governments, that is translated into technological
developments and, then, commercialized by companies who, then, create jobs: Voila!
Levy-Leblond points out that this virtuous circle a)
almost never works––most new fundamental science does not result in any new
jobs, b) the best cases take many decades (DNA discovered in 1954, and the
biotech industry only just taking root, general relativity exists since the
1920s, but the first commercially meaningful use in GPS systems is very recent,
80 years between the invention of the laser and supermarket scanners).
So, promising that more STEM investment will result in more jobs in the next 20
years flies in the face of the data. Most of the disruptive technologies of
recent decades have been more in the regime of social innovations and global market
economics that scientific ones. And the coupling of the techno-sciences to
commercial application is a social translation problem as has been discovered
and highlighted by the need to create the field of ‘translational medicine.’ He
argues that you could cut funding in fundamental science and barely impact the
commercial application of techno-science of the next few decades. I think he
over simplifies the problem as if fundamental science and applied science were
not inseparably joined at the hip. In my own experience working as an
astronomer, I developed with my colleagues new technologies (detectors, data
analysis systems), and even though the funding for space science has strategic
governmental objectives apart from basic science, the basic science was driving
Levy-Leblond also attacks the widely held arguments
about the shortage of STEM trained professionals (a topic of much current debate
see for instance the work of Hal Salzman, who states
in the Journal of the US National Academy of Science: “Despite naysayers, the nation is producing more
than enough quality workers in scientific and engineering fields—and
policymakers and industry leaders should proceed accordingly.” http://issues.org/29-4/what-shortages-the-real-evidence-about-the-stem-workforce/ ). A more recent
book by Michael Teitelbaum (http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Behind-Global-Scientific-Talent/dp/069115466X/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
“• First, that the alarms about widespread shortages or shortfalls in the
number of U.S. scientists and engineers are quite inconsistent with nearly all
• Second, that similar claims of the past were politically successful but
resulted in a series of booms and busts that did harm to the U.S. science and
engineering enterprise and made careers in these fields increasingly unattractive;
• Third, that the clear signs of malaise in the U.S. science and engineering
workforce are structural in origin and cannot be cured simply by providing
additional funding. To the contrary, recent efforts of this kind have proved to
be destabilizing, and advocates should be careful what they wish for.” 
As revealed recently by the U.S. Census Bureau, “74
percent of those who have a bachelor's degree in science, technology,
engineering and math––commonly referred to as STEM––are not employed in STEM
occupations. In addition, men continue to be overrepresented in STEM,
especially in computer and engineering occupations. About 86 percent of
engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals are men. Approximately 14
percent of engineers were women, where they were most underrepresented of all
the STEM fields. Representation of women was higher among mathematicians and
statisticians (45 percent), life scientists (47 percent) and social scientists
(63 percent).” 
Clearly the metaphor of the STEM pipeline is not a good one to understand the
various sociological factors involved in how STEM and society are linked.
Levy-Leblond argues, in addition, that many science
educators have promoted this argument in order to protect jobs in university
science departments. The boom and bust cycle of STEM funding builds up
unsustainable programs. And as Salzman points out, the
lack of significant growth in salaries for STEM graduates gives the lie to a
shortage (and that often it is global redistribution of workforces that is used
to address local shortages).
Levy-Leblond also quotes de Solla
Price that the value of having a significant of STEM experts in a society is
not because of the knowledge they have that will lead to job creation, but
rather that we need sufficient STEM graduates who can respond to new issues (climate
change) and can also train the future generation of STEM graduates and notes
that the current level of STEM graduates that, indeed, has stagnated may be
We don’t need to increase the total number, but perhaps focus on very specific
areas the T and E of STEM, and we need to address the systemic problems (under
recruitment of women and minorities, boom and bust cycles, conservatism of peer
review processes, unattractive career paths coupled to the current stresses in
university business models, such as growth of student debt and dependency on
non-tenured short term researchers and faculty, scientific fraud). So not more
STEM funding, but targeting on systemic internal problems in STEM.
Do we need a STEM educated citizenry?
Levy-Leblond argues that the societal issues that confront
governments and that involve issues of governance and citizen involvement, in
general, do not require better science educated citizens, as such.
To form an
opinion on climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms does
not involve understanding the detailed science of nuclear fission, how genes
jump or how CO2 is captured in oceans. Rather, they are not scientific
questions but technical ones (can one build protection around a nuclear power
plants against tsunamis), risk assessment associated with geologic locations
and human use. What is needed is not Scientific Culture but Engineering
Culture. Beyond this, most of these societal questions that involve STEM areas
are really questions of social and political science and economics; the
transformation of energy production in Germany has been not one of a science
educated citizenry, but one of politically and economically informed decision
social and political sciences are crucial.
The problem, he argues, is not the science education level of our
citizenry, but the way modern democracies operate, or rather malfunction, and,
in particular, the various quango, industrial and
governmental entities that make go/no-go decisions on introducing new
technologies into societal use. The lessons around nuclear power plant
accidents are not those that would be addressed by a more scientifically
educated citizenry, but rather how to reform the various systems of expertise
that lead to governmental or industrial decisions to adopt disruptive
technologies at acceptable risk.
Is Art-Science a viable vehicle for
developing Scientific Culture?
Levy-Leblond comes back to the question of the
promotion of ‘scientific culture,’ and he again reiterates that one of the
fundamental problems is the cultural ignorance of scientists themselves, whom, he
argues, are ignorant about their own science in a cultural context but also of
the activities of cultural professionals today (outside of commercial or
He takes a ‘pot-shot” at the emerging and developing art-science movement. (In
a previous blog (http://malina.diatrope.com/2011/04/17/is-art-science-hogwash-a-rebuttal-to-jean-marc-levy-leblond/)
I wrote a rebuttal to Levy-Leblond’s book, Science Is Not Art. Levy-Leblond argued,
in that book, that light and free “brief encounters” (a reference to the
classical film by David Lean, Brief
Encounter, 1945) between individual scientists and artists are likely to be
more culturally relevant than collective and institutionalized endeavors.
He states that the art-science movements “are paved with good intentions which one doesn’t know
whether they will lead to hell or even purgatory because they consist of
collaborations between scientists who lack cultural knowledge and artists who lack
scientific understanding ….one just has to think of the fable of the French
fable of the blind man and the paralytic, used ironically of an unpromising
partnership. Levy-Leblond goes on to wink that
maybe the problem is more culture in scientists rather than more science in
culture. In this argument he connects with some of the current discussions on
the STEM to STEAM movement, or the need to integrate the arts, design and
humanities into STEM strategies.
I obviously beg to disagree with Levy-Leblond and his
attack of the growing institutionalization of the art science movement. As in
emerging disciplines there are exceptional achievements (the work of Brandon Ballangee, Ruth West, or David Dunn, or Jane Prophet, or
Francois-Joseph Lapointe to name a few) and also much
routine or misguided or uninteresting work. We saw the same dilution effect as
the art and technology movement became institutionalized in new media and
gaming programs. I am happy to oppose my optimism to Levy-Leblond’s
pessimism and argue that the current institutionalization of the art-science
movement is, in the large, a positive development.
Finally Levy-Leblond points out that, indeed, if
critical thinking and assessment of evidence is part of the contribution of
STEM education and outreach, then this argument was used centuries ago in the
development of the Enlightenment and again during the age of scientific
positivism in the 19th century. He quotes from d”Alembert
in the 18th century where he
promises that “the learning of mathematics and geometry will in itself lead a whole
nation to become enlightened, perhaps the only way that certain parts of Europe
currently under oppressive governments will become liberated” (XX). This nineteenth
century proto STEM optimism, indeed, seems oversold today given the history of
carnage of the twentieth century. Levy-Leblond acidly
points out that we should not forget that science also offers the possibility
of developing un- or economically counterproductive outcomes (such as reducing
employment, destabilizing regional economies) as well as destructive outcomes
through the military uses of techno-science.
In Praise of Amatorat
and the New Amateurs
The closing section of Levy-Leblond’s essay turns
away from the jeremiad and proposes interesting pro-active proposals. He argues
that one of the problems science faces today is the social disconnection of its
professionals. He argues that what makes the arts and music culturally vital
and living is the existence both of expert artists and musicians but also a
whole range of different ways that citizens engage in the arts and music as non-professionals.
This continuity of practice from elite and professional to popular and broadly
practiced, he argues, allows the arts to be socially grounded as demonstrated
by the very vital popular music culture on line for instance.
He goes on to note that some scientific disciplines have maintained a lively
and sustainable spectrum of professional and amateur practitioners. Astronomy
and the vital continuing contributions of amateur astronomers is one. But also
in some of the natural sciences, such as ornithology and bird watching. But,
indeed, there is no such thing as an amateur quantum or particle physicist;
perhaps the CERN artist in residency program will break open the concrete? On
the other hand, the bio-art bio-hacking movement are opening whole new avenues
of collaborations between professional biologists and artists (see the Leonardo
book e-book Meta-Life: Biotechnologies,
Synthetic Biology, ALife and the Arts, http://synthbioart.texashats.org/ ).
Finally, Levy-Leblond notes the birth and rapid
development of the citizen science movement that gives him reason for optimism
and ranges from data taking to problem solving. (He wonders whether in many
cases the scientific are not basically exploiting cheap labor rather than
engaging in scientific collaboration with amateurs).
I note that there is a recent proliferation of ‘smart citizen’ initiatives that merge
the citizen science and hacker/maker cultures: http://futureeverything.org/news/futureeverything-bringing-smart-citizen-uk-intel/
These are setting up a system to distribute DYI technologies with ambitions of
enabling social action enabled by local taken data. Another example is the
Barcelona Fab Lab http://spain-lab.net/project/smart-citizen-fab-lab-barcelonaiaachangar/),
which seeks to develop a Smart
Citizen platform “to generate participatory processes of people in the cities.
Connecting data, people, and knowledge––the objective of the platform––is to
serve as a node for building productive and open indicators and distributed
tools and, thereafter, the collective construction of the city for its own
inhabitants.” STEM institutions are rapidly developing initiatives that
couple to the maker and hacker movements through Fab Labs, Maker spaces,
Accelerators (see also, for instance, Design
For America, http://designforamerica.com/ now in 20 U.S. campuses).
Levy-Leblond also notes positive developments with
medical associations engaging the participation of patient organisations
in the research projects. He advocates investment in amateur and citizen scientific
activities as one of the ways of developing a meaningful concept around
Levy-Leblond’s advocacy of a new amateur picks up on
ideas in France developed at length in a 2012 special issue of Alliage (http://revel.unice.fr/alliage/index.html?id=3229)
on “Amateur.” In that issue Bernard Stiegler (http://revel.unice.fr/alliage/index.html?id=3272 ) argued for the term French term amatorat rather than amateur to cover the whole range of new
engaged citizen activities from citizen science, to hacker and maker culture,
to patient and environmental monitoring groups, and in the U.S. the STEM to
STEAM movement. In a very real sense the advocacy of a broadened concept of
smart, STEM enabled, citizens is one element of a response to Nowotny’s call for socially robust science (http://spp.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/3/151.abstract).
So, is too much STEM a bad thing? Levy-Leblond urges
us to be careful in our received knowledge and public argumentation for the
funding of STEM, STEAM, and science education outreach in general. He argues
that the coupling between fundamental and basic science and the T end E of STEM
is fragile in a societal environment where short-term economic finalities are
the determinants of STEM investment. His warning about the lack of culture of
most scientists because of the way that scientists are educated is contrarian
but worth thinking about: Adding ethics courses to STEM education is not a
substitute for teaching science as a culturally embedded set of disciplines.
his warnings need to be taken seriously though the whole ecology that couples
science, technology, math and society is a complex dynamic network, and it is
inconceivable to view STEM strategies that amputate the S. Recent trends in
development countries of their funding of basic science, however, gives pause.
And I highly recommend to art-science practitioners that they understand Levy-Leblond’s reticence about the art-science movement. As the
STEM to STEAM movement gains steam, we need to integrate Levy-Leblond’s critiques.
« La culture scientifique: pour quoi faire ?” by Jean-Marc
Levy-Leblond, Alliage No 73, Printemps 2014 p17. http://revel.unice.fr/alliage/index.html (Alliage is a French language journal of Culture, Science and Technology, edited
by Levy-Leblond) . This issue is not online yet but
will be available in fall 2014.
Non-French readers can find some of Levy-Leblond’s
writing in English in La science en mal de culture/Science in
Want of Culture, Futuribles, 2004. (http://www.amazon.com/La-Science-Mal-Culture-Want/dp/2843873096 )
 Teitelbaum, Michael
S. (2014-03-30). Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent
(p. 3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Census Bureau. (https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/employment_occupations/cb14-130.html).