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How science changed — V. And changed academe

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/19

After WWII, lavish support for science made it a cash cow that academe used to change itself; a change abetted by the corruption of collegiate sport.

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Science began as an informal cottage industry; nowadays it is a highly organized bureaucratic behemoth that is pervasively intertwined with other sectors of human society.

Science began as a disinterested quest to understand how the world works; practical applications were an incidental though welcome byproduct. Nowadays, society values science for its byproducts more than for the truths it reveals about Nature.

Teaching institutions, colleges, universities were founded to educate (albeit sometimes indoctrinate) future generations. Nowadays much of academe has become a self-serving enterprise in which institutions seek status and prestige from what used to be incidental byproducts; research in academe now has an immediate eye out for patents and potential commercial applications, and intercollegiate sports for local enjoyment have become means of mass entertainment for lucrative revenue. A research university will have many dozens of administrators engaged in managing grant-related matters, intellectual property matters, compliance with regulations, status of research staff, and so on. Almost every university has many dozens of administrative staff engaged in managing its intercollegiate sports programs as well as coaches (whose salaries often exceed those of the university president) and assistant coaches (whose salaries are comparable to or exceed those of full professors).

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Scientific activity changed from a cottage industry quite slowly at first, and in fits and starts. Already in the 19th century science had been important in the commercial dye-stuff industry. During the First World War, the German war effort was supported by the discovery, by the chemist Fritz Haber, how to synthesize fertilizers and explosives using the nitrogen in the air. During the 1930s, medical practice began to have genuinely curative capabilities with the discovery of bacteria-killing sulfonamides. But, by and large, up to the Second World War scientific activity remained something of a cottage industry, and basic scientific research was largely an academic ivory-tower activity.

World War II demonstrated the powerful capabilities of applications of scientific understanding; not only the war-ending atomic bombs but also and earlier the sonar that was such an invaluable weapon against submarines and the radar that was invaluable to Great Britain in staving off the German Blitzkrieg bombers; as well as all sorts of developments and improvements in weaponry in techniques of communication and of navigation.

Vannevar Bush had been director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, seeing at first hand what science could accomplish. Shortly after the end of World War II he presented the president of the United States with a report entitled Science: The Endless Frontier,  which suggested that scientific research and development could be as valuable to peacetime society as science had proved to be in warfare.

Bush’s initiative is generally credited for the subsequent enormous, unprecedented resources directed into the expansion of scientific activity. The federal support of science came in part as grants to support research activity in the form of specific proposed projects, but also in large part through scholarships and fellowships to stimulate more students to go into science as a career.

That influx of funds led to truly far-reaching changes in academe.

Traditionally, the role of universities was to provide tertiary education, preparing people for the professions. A small proportion of academe comprised so-called “research universities” where the faculty were as much concerned with extending the boundaries of scholarship and of science as they were with the education and training of students; yet the research and scholarship were designed to serve the aim of educating students to become independent professionals. However, the emphasis on scientific research and on training more scientists led eventually to the contemporary circumstances where the primary aim is determined by the demands of the research project rather than by whether the work is best suited for the students to learn how to do independent research. Graduate students came to be seen as cheap technical help rather than as apprentices to be nurtured; science faculty among themselves could be heard referring to the graduate students they were mentoring as “pairs of hands”. In earlier days, prospective graduate students in the sciences would choose their mentors to fit with the students’ specific research interests; nowadays graduate students in the sciences sign on to mentors who have the research grants to support them and they work as cogs in the mentor’s long-term research program [1].

The overt aim of supporting and enhancing science had the corollary effect, no doubt unforeseen and unintended, of making science more prestigious than other intellectual fields within colleges and universities. In time, that tempted some of those other fields to distort themselves in trying to mimic science and gain comparable status and prestige thereby. And not only intellectual prestige: science (and engineering and medical) faculty had higher salaries than faculty in the humanities and the social sciences, and moreover scientists could augment their academic ”9-month” salaries with an extra 20-30% from their research grants as summer-time stipends.

In the humanities, for example — philosophy, history, to some degree psychology — scholarship traditionally focused on critical analysis of traditional classical insights gained by earlier scholars, with comparatively little expectation that entirely novel, ground-breaking insights could be attained. Scholars in the humanities would occasionally publish critiques and analyses and perhaps eventually scholarly monographs. By contrast, in the sciences the emphasis was on novelty, on going beyond what was already known. As other parts of academe developed the ambition to be as well-supported fiscally and thereby as highly regarded as the sciences, they also came to emphasize originality and publication. Graduate students working towards doctoral degrees in history or psychology or sociology are nowadays supposed to generate stuff that deserves publication, often as a monograph. The sciences have become an inappropriate role model for other intellectual disciplines.

The pots of gold available for science-related activities also tempted whole institutions, four-year colleges and teachers’ colleges in particular, to seek prestige and status by transforming themselves into “research” universities. By hiring scientists, grants could be obtained whose amounts were calculated not only to cover the actual costs of the research but also “overhead” costs to reimburse the whole institution for the use of its infrastructure pertinent to the research (“indirect costs” became a popular euphemism for “overhead”). Those indirect costs could be as high as a 50% surcharge on the actual costs of research, and that provided a pool of money that upper-level administrators could draw on for all sorts of things. In the 1940s, the United States had 107 doctorate-granting research universities; by 1950–54 there were 142, by 1960–64 there were 208, and by 1970–74 the number had grown to 307 [2]; since then the rate of growth has been much less, with a count of 334 in 2016 [3 ].

 

The influx of science-related money may have stimulated academe to change in inappropriate and undesirable ways, but science cannot be held responsible for all of today’s ills of academe. Like science, like sports, like so much else, academe has been corrupted by the love of money. One of the most serious consequences is the progressive elimination of tenure-track faculty, replaced by teachers on fixed-term contracts. Academic freedom cannot exist in the absence of tenure, and genuine freedom of thought, expression, and criticism cannot exist in the absence of academic freedom.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem is that both academe and science both should be venues for unfettered truth-seeking activities. But truth-seeking is inevitably subversive, and it is never supported for its own sake by the powers that be. The corruption and distortion of science and academe make it easier for non-truths to spread, which is dangerous for the long-term health of society.

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[1]    Now-graduated Jorge Cham has described life as a graduate student by means of comic strips: see Sara Coelho, “Piled Higher and Deeper: The everyday life of a grad student”, Science, 323 (2009) 1668–9.
[2]    A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, National Academies Press, 1978.
[3]    According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education

 

 

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Categories: funding research, science policy, scientific culture
Tags: science changed academe,corruption of academe

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