Pure Science and Applied Science: A Symbiotic Relationship
At least since Francis Bacon, claims have been made about the practical benefits to humankind that scientific research can produce. At times, though, applications have preceded explanations, challenging how much “pure” science is needed. The value of “applied” science is easily understood. The steam engine, the electric light, the telegraph, all have benefits for humankind. But while these are examples of applied science they could not have happened without foundation in pure science. Are pure and applied science even separate things, or are they more like two sides of a coin? This paper will argue that rather than thinking of “pure” and “applied” science as separate entities a more accurate distinction is that there are two kinds of scientists: those interested in knowledge for its own sake, and those who seek to apply knowledge to solve problems, and that like a coin, each side depends on the other for its full value.
Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620) is subtitled, Or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature. In it he addresses the divide between the two ways of pursuing science. “Let there be … two streams and two dispensations of knowledge … two tribes or kindreds of students in philosophy—tribes not hostile or alien to each other, but bound together by mutual services; let there in short be one method for the cultivation and another for the invention, of knowledge.” (Emphasis added.) Some people, Bacon says, will be constrained from “inventing” knowledge, “either from hurry or from considerations of business”; they will be the ones who apply the knowledge “invented” by the other group, the ones whom he invites to join him in penetrating further, “to overcome, not an adversary in argument but nature in action.” Bacon sees himself as a “pure” scientist, a seeker of “certain and demonstrable knowledge.” But, he points out, there is also value to the other group, with whom his group is “bound together by mutual services.” (Emphasis added.) It is clear why he sees the other group as needing his group. This paper addresses why his group needs the other.
Scientists, as humans, must eat and have shelter. They need clothes to wear, shoes, furniture, all the things that other men require. Some men are “well-born” and need never concern themselves with these requirements. Most men, however, must earn life’s necessities. This creates a dilemma for the “pure” scientist. Scientific research and experimentation have value to society but not always obviously or immediately. Yet the scientist must eat every day. Somehow he must have his needs fulfilled while he pursues his work. At one time the Roman Catholic Church was a patron of science, providing the scientist with his basic needs so that he could go about his work. The Church expected scientists to be content with “handmaiden” status; their discoveries were to be presented as revelation of God’s perfection. However new discoveries became harder to reconcile with “scripture.” Scientists wanted to pursue their science wherever it took them and not be enjoined from publishing their work. The Church had no interest in supporting scientists who were not serving its purposes. Pure science suffered for want of application.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century Thos. Savery claimed that he had devised a machine that would solve an old problem; water flooding underground mines. Savery never produced a practical model, however his attempts shed light on the relationship between pure and applied science. This attempt serves as a focal point for the joining of Bacon’s “two streams.” Savery demonstrated a working model of his “Miner’s Friend” in 1702 but still needed to make it work deep underground. Savery had patented his pump and applied for an extension, which was granted. Patents were crucial to allowing pure science to proceed. With a patent Savery could attract investors who would have a reasonable expectation of seeing a return on their investment due to having exclusive rights to the machine’s application. Investors allowed Savery to continue his work without having to produce immediate results.
Perhaps more illustrative of the symbiosis of applied to pure science is James Watt’s improvements to the Newcomen (steam) engine. Watt was a successful instrument maker but set that aside and set about to improve the engine’s efficiency. This became a long process, made possible because several investors were willing to support him. One in particular, Matthew Boulton, waited out an early patron who went bankrupt, allowing Boulton to pick up two-thirds interest in Watt’s enterprise. Boulton’s deeper pockets in turn allowed Watt to scrap the light, flimsy model he had been constructing and begin again with a sturdier design. The pairing worked very well for both parties: Watt devised a steam engine that proved so popular there were almost five hundred in use by the expiration of the patent, in 1800; Boulton created an innovative business model, including a “build to order” feature, and both men increased their wealth. Perhaps Watt’s science wasn’t completely “pure” as it was applicable to an engineering problem. Certainly Watt built on earlier work by Boyle and Hooke but his work was original, too. Watt was on both sides of the coin.
Less than one hundred years later, in his Plea For Pure Science, H.A. Rowland made the case for keeping pure science apart from the applications to which it might be put. He saw the need for science to be free to race ahead, letting the applied side come along at its own speed. If work could only proceed at a pace fixed by applicability America could become like the Chinese, “a people … who have made no progress for generations, because they have been satisfied with the applications of science, and have never sought for reasons for what they have done.” Rowland also expressed concern that as most people could only appreciate the practical side of science, the pure scientist would perceive “that his higher ideas are too high to be appreciated by the world” and he will be dragged down to the level of the masses. If we do not disconnect the pure from the practical, he claims, the pure will die.
So the question of how the pure scientist will survive came up again. “The scientist and the mathematician … must earn their living by other pursuits, usually teaching, and only devote their surplus time to the true pursuit of their science.” But even these men, because of small salaries and the atmosphere in which they exist, turn too often to commercial pursuits, to applied science. Rowland calls upon these pure scientists, university professors especially, to pursue pure science with vigor, to forsake the pursuit of wealth. He calls upon the universities to support these professors with ample salaries and the necessary space and equipment. And he calls upon the wealthy families of the nation to concentrate their endowments, creating a few true universities.
Rowland’s plea is idealistic and impractical. Pure science and applied science are intimately related. Men will always seek uses for knowledge and return on investment. Applied science needs pure science for foundation. Pure science needs applied science lest it vanish from disinterest. The coin cannot be split down the middle.
 Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings, edited, with an introduction, by Fulton H. Anderson, The Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1960, page 36.
 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, pages 223-233, and Paolo Rossi, The Birth of Modern Science, First English translation by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001, pages 73-98.
 Robert Friedel, A Culture of Improvement, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, copyright Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pages 191-194.
 Ibid, pages 201-207.
 H.A. Rowland, A Plea For Pure Science, Science, Volume 2, Issue 29 (August 24, 1883), page 242.
 Ibid, page 243.
 Ibid, page 244.
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