The Social Framework of the Scientific Enterprise


By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Humans invariably form social groups, and scientists are no different. Science is an ongoing human adventure and has its own unique organizational structures, just like any other social system. This article identifies some of the prominent scientific groups and their contribution to the scientific community.

A group of young children attending a science class and looking at a test tube of green liquid.
Inculcating scientific thinking in young children strengthens the social aspects of science. (Image:

Understanding the Social Aspects of Science

Science influences society in a myriad of ways, which in turn engages the scientific enterprise. It encourages social changes, which in turn have a huge impact on the citizens of the country.

A scientifically literate population can handle the problems of society better and can make informed decisions to improve both their personal quality of life and participation in social issues.

It also has a positive impact on students as science-oriented students are trained to better apply their critical thinking ability toward understanding science and the scientific enterprise.

However, this should not be considered as a limitation for non-science oriented students as everyone can achieve scientific literacy and share the joy of science. Educators need to focus on imparting scientific knowledge to non-science oriented students by emphasizing a few basic principles of science. After all, science is a human endeavor, which refers to its history, its philosophy, and its social context.

Learn more about the scientific method.

Scientific Organizations

Science has always been a human activity where people across the world engage in scientific activities to seek explanations of the natural world and improve their quality of life.

About 350,000 scientists are part of the government, academia, and industry in the United States. Most of these scientists possess a Ph.D., years of research experience, and postdoctoral training. Being a human endeavor, scientists like other humans have an inclination to form social groups. 

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Universally known as AAAS, this Washington based multidisciplinary scientific society has about 130,000 members. It is often in the news, lobbying for science education, and is a leading publisher of the Science family of magazines. Its widely read academic journal Science is circulated weekly and publishes original scientific articles along with a variety of science-related news and features.

Its rival magazine, Nature, is a commercial British scientific journal that is published every week. It features a variety of science-related news and original research papers from across a range of science disciplines. The scientific community considers it a privilege to get articles published in this magazine.

The National Academy of Sciences

Photograph of the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.
The National Academy of Sciences is also an advisory body to the Congress. (Image: © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2000)

based out of Washington, the Academy is an advisory body to the Congress on science- and technology-related issues. It provides a monthly summary in its policy magazine Issues in Science and Technology. With a membership of around 2,000 scientists, the scientific community considers it honorary to be chosen as a member of this academy.

Sigma Xi—the North Carolina based scientific honor society is one of the oldest organizations that spans several disciplines of scientists and engineers. It publishes a monthly science and technology magazine called American Scientist.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Organizations Based on Academic Disciplines

Physics—the American Physical Society with a diverse group of around 50,000 physicists in the United States is one of the largest associations of physicists. It publishes the well-known monthly Physics Today.

Chemistry—the American Chemical Society, with 150,000 members, is one of the largest societies in the world comprising of both scientists and engineers. Chemical & Engineering News is the weekly published by the society to share technical and professional information to scientists and chemical engineers.

Earth science—the Geological Society of America based in Boulder, Colorado is committed to the progress of geosciences and publishes a monthly journal called Geology and the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Oklahoma, which known for its oil reserves, houses another important organization, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists with over 20,000 members.

The federal government supports geophysics through the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the key scientific organization that is considered an authority on geophysics. It has over 20,000 members. It publishes a weekly EOS that provides reliable news on geophysics.

Biology—the government supports the various biological sciences through the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The highest allocation in the annual U.S. science budget of about 20 billion dollars a year is for biology.

Learn more about celestial and terrestrial mechanics.

Funding the Scientific Community

An aerial photo of the NIH Clinical Research Center, Bethesda.
The U.S. government funds various biological science projects through the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. (Image: NIH/Public domain)

The federal government uses the taxes paid by its citizens to fund scientific salaries. They spend equally for both defense and non-defense related projects. 

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland spends about $20 billion annually, while NASA spends about $14 billion a year. The fund allocation by the federal government for research was about $90 billion, which was approximately half the budget ($45 billion) that was spent on military research. In addition universities, business establishments, and non-profit organizations also funded the salaries of scientists.

Common Questions about the Social Framework of the Scientific Enterprise

Q: Can science be described as a social enterprise?

Scientists have started to accept the fact the science is a social activity shaped by history, philosophy, and society in general.

Q: Which are the scientific journals produced by some influential scientific organizations?

A few scientific journals produced by some influential scientific organizations are: Science, Nature, Issues in Science and Technology, American Scientist, Physics Today, and Geology and the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

Q: How is scientific research funded in the United States?

Usually, scientific research is funded by the federal government from taxes paid by its citizens, by businesses involved in research and development, and by non-profit organizations.

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