Science as a Gift

Although I sometimes find some interesting items for the birthdays of random friends I have not seen in a while, I do not really have a soft spot for gift shops at science and technology centers. Do not get me wrong, they are amusing places, and I have nothing against them. They are somehow designed to work as an extension of the overall museum experience. But, weirdly, in my mind, I have always thought the name is misleading. At a science museum the gift happens elsewhere.

Cultural critic Lewis Hyde articulates the essential difference between work and labor, understanding which takes us a little closer to the grail of vocational fulfillment. Work is what we do by the hour. It is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will and, if possible, we do it for money. A scientist paid by the hour, for example, might often be a technician, rather than a member of the scientific community. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it is harder to quantify.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow. Flow is a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you are part of something larger. If you have ever pulled an all-nighter for a science fair project, or even spent twenty consecutive hours composing a love letter, you have experienced flow.

In an enduring community of science, scientific knowledge may circulate either as a commodity, for sale at a profit, or as a gift. Sociologist Warren Hagstrom points out that manuscripts submitted to scientific journals are often called contributions, and they are, in fact, gifts. It is rare for the journals that print these contributions to pay their authors. On the contrary, contributors are repeatedly called upon to help defray the cost of publication.

Gifts cannot be asked for, they are given. In a way, they are depictions of the nature of the existing relationship between the giver and the receiver. Gifts require certain effort from the giver, certain sacrifice, something that enhances the value of the given good or service. Scientists who give their ideas to the community may receive recognition and status in return. In such a community status, prestige, or esteem take the place of cash remuneration.

For French sociologist Marcel Mauss, gift giving is both selfish and altruistic, and furthers both of these human aspects at the same time. For him all given goods or services are never completely separated from the giver, which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Solidarity is thus achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange. There is no room for free gifts in this scenario, which is the main reason why Mauss’s views on the nature of gift giving have not been without their critics. On the other hand, Hyde opts for embracing most of Mauss’s views but stating that “the gift must always move.” Within this expanded scenario, there is indeed room for free gifts. Hyde argues that what is essential is that gifts are moving, rather than their direction; reciprocity is then secondary. Knowledge sharing is an example of this movement from generation to generation. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Within the scientific community any exchange will tend toward gift if it is intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community. In fact, science is only a community to the degree that ideas move as gifts. Departmentalized science in capitalist universities dominated by contractual research for industry and the military, among other examples, turns ideas into commodities and fractures the community by means of speculation, secrecy, and greed. Furthermore, when secondary goals, such as jobs and money, become primary, the amount of irrelevant work increases, and science suffers.

Science should never cease to be a community in which ideas flow freely and ideas are treated as gifts. And, so far, despite a few stories of stolen ideas, most scientists understand they belong to a group in which a circulation of gifts can produce and maintain a coherent community, and ultimately contribute to a greater good from which we all benefit.

In a way, science and technology centers live at the surface of this circulation of gifts, and celebrate it by inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and innovators; the next generation of gift givers.

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