Pure science vs. applied science, a letter to the editor

I’m writing in response to Henry Rowland’s 1883 Science Magazine article “Plea to Pure Science Speech.” On the subject of pure and applied sciences, I disagree with Henry Rowland. He argues that in order for a science to be applied, the science must first exist. If we decide to halt its development and focus solely on the application of science, the human race will degenerate and become like the Chinese people. Henry further claims that America has taken pure science of the ancient world, and applied it in all its uses, and fully accepting it without enquiring about its origin or acknowledging the individuals who invented it. This in turn leads to increased innovation. However, I disagree with Henry Rowland because pure science often does not stimulate innovation; I believe that technological change in most cases tends to spring naturally from the human inventiveness. According to Hounshell (612), the proper course for innovation is not necessarily calling something science but is “to consider what must be done to create a science of physics in this country…” In which case, Hounshell takes lightly the argument by Rowland regarding the magnitude of pure science and converges with me to the fact that inventiveness is the major factor.

I also disagree with Henry Rowland that for any civilized country of the present day, applications of science are crucial and necessary for the nation to succeed. As a result, there are several countries across the globe, where pure science has been cultivated in the past, and still continues to be cultivated (Rowland 1). However, the countries are rare, and individuals wishing to pursue pure science in America must be ready and willing to face public opinion in a way that requires a lot of moral courage. In my point of view, as supported by Houshell (1980; p. 613), the government-funded basic research should not be the only path through which individuals come up with innovations with the aim of improving the society. For instance, when looking at the popular linear model, we can come to the conclusion that basic science tends to fuel new technology, which in turn has numerous benefits to the society. I believe that there is no need for the government to continue funding science. This is because, the industry will do so on its own. In my point of view, large government investments particularly in science does not automatically translate to breakthroughs. Also, the discoveries are in most cases advertised as resulting directly from funding by the public such as the internet, boson and the Higgas. I believe that money flowing from philanthropists or industry might in most cases result in completely different kinds of scientific breakthroughs.

Additionally, I differ with Henry Rowland that the true pursuit of mankind is usually intellectual. According to him, the scientific study of nature in the various branches of mathematics, both in the past and the present, the search of art, the cultivation of everything that is considered noble and great in the world are some of the highest occupations of human beings (Rowland 1). The applications of sciences, commerce as well as the amassing of wealth, are considered necessities that are a curse to individuals with high deals. To illustrate the position of applied science in the world, he explains the story of a boy who was employed to work during the early days of creating a steam engine. He was assigned the duty of turning the valve specifically at every stroke. Rowland in this case believes that necessity was deemed as the mother of invention; To become free from his duty of turning the valve, he tied it to a movable part of the engine to allow it to move its own valve. Contrary to this perspective, I believe that by examining the history of innovation, one will find out that the scientific breakthroughs were the effect of technological change and not the cause. For example, the steam engine was not as a result of breakthroughs mainly in the thermodynamics science, but it certainly did benefit from the invention.

I tend to differ with Henry Rowland on his point about making money through inventions. According to Rowland, it is not a disgrace to make money through an invention or even carry out commercial scientific works under any circumstances. He claims that if the purpose in life is to make wealth, then individuals should go ahead and engage in commercial pursuits but in an honest manner. Nevertheless, I believe that this should not be the case. The increased cases of corruption and bias in the field of science are tarnishing the reputation for the industry. Science in philosophy is recommendable but science as an institution has a negative image.


Matt Rideley


Henry Augustus Rowland (1883). A plea for Pure Science. Popular Science Monthly. Volume 24.

David A. Hounshell, “Edison and the Pure Science Ideal in America,” Science 207 (1980): 612-617

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