The heroism of applied science

… for the common wages of their most secret heart

Chapter ten of Challenge to Reason (Churchman 1968), “The heroism of applied science,” was a paper delivered at the Department of Defense (DoD) Logistics Research Conference in Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia, May, 1965. Churchman’s life was rather peculiar in many respects. In 1941, when his career as a university philosopher had just taken off, he joined the US war effort in DoD’s operations research. It was in many ways the beginning of the rest of his life. And the DoD never stopped advancing logistics research since then. After the war, Churchman helped establish operations research as an academic subject. Probably he became best known for creating ‘the systems approach’, which integrates philosophy, management and planning, all in the widest sense possible. The themes that unite them are value and inquiry. In the paper there is only one mention of the DOD and its scientists, which is on p. 129 of the Challenge to Reason (for link see below). And at the very end of the paper, where Dylan Thomas describes the spiritual basis or ‘mood’ of applied researchers, in defense logistics and elsewhere: “In my craft or sullen art”. This paper is about applied research in general, but it is also about science, progress, social systems, and the roles different people play in this ‘drama’. It is about the systems approach.

Pure and applied research      … combine to produce what we know as scientific progress, which – to some extent – improves our world. Pure research improves scientific theories, which are used by applied research to develop technical solutions. Pure research has no way of telling whether its science will be used for the better or worse. Scientists just go on expanding the boundaries to fill the metaphoric ´reservoir´ of scientific knowledge to the rim, hoping that other people such as applied researchers will make good and proper use of it. It does so by working on the most promising or intriguing lines of research. Pure science works in relative isolation from society in its so-called ‘ivory towers’. This is part of a simple division of ‘labour’. Nothing special about it.

Small, isolated problems       Both, pure and applied research like to work on small, isolated problems, of which it can realistically can be expected that they can be brought to a ‘scientifically’ justifiable conclusion. Applied research differs from basic research in that it is typically about technical solutions that ought to bring some form of improvement into the real world. But who is to judge and/or decide? And how? And with what information? And who can supply the information? Considering the complexity of the real world? These are questions that pure research doesn’t need to answer. That is why we say that it lacks the scientific heroism of applied research. Applied researchers (and consultants and evaluators) have good reasons to be concerned. This places a considerable burden of doubt on the shoulders of all concerned.

Debatable decision-making        For every instance of applied research considerable decision-making is required. First of all, the right balance between pure research and applied research needs to be determined. Then there is the issue of which problems need to be addressed.  Next there is the question of how the decision-making entity is to obtain the necessary information and whether it can be trusted. And reversely, how the applied researchers can be trusted in supplying the necessary information. Many of the problems are in the minds of those directly involved and those around them. Both the applied researcher and the decision-maker have a world view, a Weltanschauung, a general idea of what the world is like, that implies that a technical improvement can be introduced without in some way upsetting the ‘whole’. The decision-makers themselves have a decision-making culture that is based on old values involving ‘perceived’ wisdom and other ‘values’ that blind people to the truth. The story of the ‘stooge’ (Churchman 1968, p. 130. See link below) is a wonderful example of non-critical debate or even anti-critical debate, considering that the truth is staring the decision-makers in the face. It also undermines the storyline of the enemies of the systems approach.

Enemies of the systems approach       Finally, there is the problem of the enemies of the systems approach. The most common one is the ‘excellent’ manager, who supposedly is the one who quickly takes the right decisions due to his experience, perceptive mind, and intuition. He/she assumes leadership easily and has a powerful and popular myth going in the USA and elsewhere. He/she is endowed with such magical decision-making capacities as horse sense, common sense, special know-how, or just ‘plain’, deep insight. See also my earlier post here .

Tragic aspiration      We must conclude that the role of the applied scientist is a tragic one. In true heroic fashion he/she must act (to serve his people or mankind in the best way he/she can; this is his humanist side), “but he cannot ever know that his actions are good. His actions have a humorous side that all will recognize. Being human, he is reluctant to become heroic”, and will at some point close his eyes to the debatable myth of decision-making, and bring out his scientific side.

Key learning points         Churchman’s presentation covers several key aspects of his ‘systems approach’ at a time when he has not yet written ‘The systems approach’ (1968b). We see four roles, which are also categories in the framework of his systems approach: (1) the beneficiary (the real world), (2) the decision-maker (who decides on the allocation of resources, one more category), (3) the planner (mostly the scientist, but mixed up with the decision-maker), and (4) the systems thinker (anybody who at some point or other tries to take away the burden of doubt by seeking to embed the technical solution systemically). What is clear is that these roles do not exist in a pure form. If things go wrong, as they often do, the real world is inhabited by real people who feel more like victims than beneficiaries. The question will be asked whether this could have been foreseen. Another question is whether the right measures of success (another category) were in place or should have been in place.

The systems approach      Finally, there is the question to what extent the systems approach could help to ensure that human activity systems (such as DoD logistics research) deliver improvements in the human condition (this is category number seven out of a total of twelve). Just like all the other questions it raises, it is not an easy one to answer. In my biased view the answer needs to be a bit oracular: the importance of the systems approach lies in the measure to which the insights that may come from its application would be neglected without it. In other words: the systems approach provides a framework for critical inquiry and systemic design (or adjustment or evaluation) that is both systemic (in a teleological sense, since human planning invariably has purpose, and as such can be approached rationally) and systematic (it doesn’t leave out important categories, as we usually and inescapably do if we plan without it). In other words (again): the systems approach is something we do all the time without realizing it, but by realizing it we can do a better job at it. It is not particularly difficult to learn (although it will still require some hard thinking) and it is a really great eye-opener.

“His [i.e. Churchman’s] approach is based on differentiating the functions served by people in a system rather than on the behavior of particular people in a system. The focus is on roles and not individuals. Each role has particular decision-making responsibilities identified with it that define the purpose of that role as a teleological function. The functionality of the role is not defined so much by activity as it is by authority and responsibility.”                                        Harold Nelson, 2003 

Churchman, C. W. (1968a). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. Retrieved from

Churchman, C. W. (1968b). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Retrieved from (from your library?)

Nelson, H. G. (2003). The legacy of C. West Churchman: a framework for social systems assessments. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 20(6), 463–473. Retrieved from


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