The moralisation of science is challenging its autonomy

The United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently published a new policy concerning sexual harassment. In essence, it affirms that any scientist, notwithstanding his (or her) prestige or scientific qualities, may lose his or (statistically less likely) her grants if found guilty of sexual or other forms of harassment.

Nobody can seriously be against the idea of sanctioning unacceptable behaviour. However, the NSF policy directly linking the practice of science to the moral behaviour of scientists points toward a profound transformation in the relations between science and society by adding to the implicit norms of the scientific community a new form of moralisation of science.

Scientists often consider their search for objective knowledge as a highly moral activity. But their notion of morality is more philosophical than social. It applies to the world of ideas not to their actions in everyday social life.

This implicit separation of the social from the scientific sphere of action is also found in the mission of all science-funding agencies which, over the past half-century, have essentially focused their work on deciding who should get government money for research, a decision reached by evaluating, usually through peer review, the quality of the researcher and the originality of the research programme.

Similarly, journal editors accept or reject papers on the sole basis of internal criteria, often using double-blind methods to diminish the role of personal bias in this process of evaluation.

They thus made no moral inquisition to check whether the person, qua scientist, was, for example, racist (like the Physics Nobel Prize winner William Shockley), anti-Semitic (like another Physics Nobel Prize winner Johannes Stark) or misogynous. For it has long been implicit and generally accepted that the ‘republic of science’ was a relatively autonomous subset of society with its own rules based on expertise.

Changing the scientific norms

This view of science was formalised in the 1940s by the sociologist Robert K Merton as the “normative structure of science”.

According to Merton, science as a social system aimed at generating new and sound knowledge is essentially based on four institutional norms: communalism (knowledge is a public good), disinterestedness (scientists search for truth not personal interests), organised scepticism (results must be scrutinised before being accepted) and universalism (scrutiny of scientific results does not depend on the particular characteristics – religion, ethnicity, etc – of the scientist).

This last norm has generally been taken to mean that only objective arguments can be used to evaluate research projects and scientific results. The point here is not that, as humans, scientists never break these rules, but that they are taken as implicit regulatory principles within the scientific community.

In order to underscore how the new moralisation of science implicit in the recent NSF policy is indeed original and transformative, let us recall a few striking examples showing that while such moralisation of science linking grants or prizes or publications to the ‘good’ social and moral behaviour of scientists did exist in the past, it was generally considered inconsistent with the norm that Merton called ‘universalism’.

In hindsight, those examples can be read as failed attempts at the moralisation of science.

Can a woman who is having an affair with a married man get a Nobel Prize?

That the moral expectations of society concerning ‘good’ behaviour are not supposed to be directly applied to the ‘republic of science’ is most evident in Marie Curie’s reaction to the demand by the Nobel Committee that she should not attend the official 10 December ceremony for her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in light of the public debates in France concerning her affair with Paul Langevin, a married man.

Speaking in the name of the Nobel Committee, the chemist Svante Arrhenius even specified (in a letter dated 1 December) that Curie should not accept the prize before the accusations against her had been shown to be ill-founded.

She immediately responded (on 5 December) that she would indeed be present at the ceremony since “the prize has been given to her for her discovery of polonium and radium”. She considered that “there is no relation between her scientific work and the facts of her private life”.

She then unwittingly reaffirmed the typically Mertonian norm of universalism by stating that she “cannot accept the principle that the appreciation of the scientific value of her work could be influenced by defamations and calumny concerning her private life”. And she was convinced that many colleagues agreed with her attitude. So, she did attend the ceremony and did get her medal.

Can a murderer publish scientific papers?

The difference between the moral convictions of individual citizens and the institutional norms of science is also illustrated by the public uproar that followed the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its 1918 Chemistry Prize to Fritz Haber, the German scientist who supervised the use of the first chemical gas in 1915.

But a more extreme example of the fact that the moral norms of science are closely tied to the search for truth and do not take into consideration the personal and moral character of its author, is illustrated by the engineering professor Valery Fabrikant who, in 1992, killed four of his colleagues and wounded a secretary.

Serving a life sentence, he nonetheless continued his theoretical research and published over the last 20 years more than 50 papers in recognised peer-reviewed academic journals using his prison cell as his institutional address.

Many people objected to that practice on the basis that, having lost his liberty, Fabrikant had no right to publish scientific papers, but experts in research ethics objected to that censure by recalling that individual crimes are punished by society and should not influence the judgement on the validity of scientific results.

Interestingly, even a former colleague of Fabrikant admitted to being ambivalent and said that though he did find it reprehensible that Fabrikant continued to publish, to deny anyone the possibility of publication goes against a deeply embedded belief held by the academic community.

Retrospective moralisation

The recent process of moralisation of science suggests that the ideal autonomy of the ‘republic of science’ with its internal norms adapted to its specific aim (the advancement of objective knowledge) is going out of fashion, the new assumption being that in order to produce ‘good’ science one should also be a properly moral person.

Not limited to living scientists, moralisation can also be retrospective. As is already the case for historical figures, it is now scientists who see their past scrutinised and when their morality is found wanting by the present norms of moral activists and entrepreneurs, institutions are pressured to erase from public visibility names now considered offending.

In 2015, for example, a street named Alexis Carrel, a famous biologist and Nobel Prize winner, was changed to that of a more acceptable scientist (Marie Curie) after some moral activists discovered that the author of the best-selling 1935 essay Man, the Unknown, was in favour of eugenics, a fact already well known to historians of science.

Fortunately, retrospective moralisation can also have positive effects by giving a new visibility to scientists who had been unknown to the general public despite their important contributions to science.

The most spectacular case is probably that of mathematician Alan Turing, whose actual public image certainly owes much to the action of the moral entrepreneurs whose petitions finally forced Britain’s prime minister and the Queen to apologise for having condemned Turing in 1952 to undertake hormonal treatment – a plausible cause of his committing suicide in 1954 – solely because he was gay.

Will moralisation produce better science?

By deciding that the social behaviour of scientists will now affect their chances of keeping their grants, the NSF extends its traditional mission beyond that of scientific gatekeeper. This is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the times, but by explicitly opening the scientific sphere to the general social sphere, it will be moving onto more slippery terrain.

Whereas getting funded by the NSF was perceived as a sign of scientific excellence, it is possible that in the coming years, keeping one’s grant will have also become a badge of good social behaviour.

It also suggests that existing institutions hiring those people are not doing their work properly. But as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, only time will tell if the new NSF policy will contribute to the production of a ‘better’ science through the fashioning of ‘better’ scientists.

Yves Gingras is professor of history and sociology of science at Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada. His most recent books are Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation: Uses and abuses (MIT Press, 2016) and Science and Religion: An impossible dialogue (Polity press, 2018). Email: