Thursday, May 30, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (4)

One of the increasingly essential skills of today's researcher is the ability to secure funding. I'll deal with that tomorrow in greater detail. For now, suffice it to point out that there must be some very smart and curious people, people who are very much able to make important scientific contributions, who are not at all good at framing what they do in terms that will appeal to funding agencies. My point in these posts is, in part, that such people are going to be—are already being—replaced by people "of a different stamp".

Most of the arguments I've had about this issue have been derailed by a somewhat pitying, somewhat condescending attitude about the "geniuses" who are being marginalized by the current scientific order. These are the scholars who are, as Heidegger predicted, "disappearing". The system is defended by saying these people will just have to wake up to the new realities. "Life isn't fair," etc. Underlying this defense is an assumption that ultimately these people are just not willing to play the new game. Too bad for them.

I think this misses the point, or at least the point I would like to make. Even if we can accept the damage we do to the odd promising intellectual who, tragically, "just doesn't have the social skills", do we really want our research institutions to be populated by people who survive a selection process that focuses on those social skills? Do we want those skills to filter people out?

A good way of seeing the problem is by way of this lovely takedown of the BBC's New Generation Thinkers program by Rowan Pelling at the Telegraph. Her point is really important to make. What happens to research when virtues other than the intelligence and knowledge it takes to hold your own with the last generation of thinkers begin to determine your success as an academic? What happens when how well you come across on TV becomes a determinant of your success as a scholar?

Do we really want a system in which a conventional kind of beauty, or what E.E. Cummings called a "comfortable mind", defines what it means to be an intellectual? Knowledge as something that can be transmitted in a short TV interview.

Now, as Pelling points out, intellectual life is already less than fair, and success there is not wholly based on intelligence. (The intellectual has always cultivated a certain kind of "look".) The old generation, too, is populated by people who demonstrated a certain amount social savvy. But I like to believe that they at least charmed the hearts (rather than minds) of other intellectuals. While they may have corrupted them, they did not do an end run around them. Even if they drew on strengths other than their knowledge, the people they impressed were themselves actually knowledgeable.

What is happening now is that academics are making their careers by appealing much more directly to the instruments of power. They are not showing their employers that they can discover the truth. They are showing their employers that they can make the public believe that whatever they discover is the truth. And of course that their work is important. And their employers are impressed by the power that such abilities imply, not the knowledge that they are supposed to represent.

All this, it seems to me, is part of the new corporate culture of the university. Its employees are devoted to the goal of making their organization succeed, which is to say grow, which is to say, attract students and research funding. This new loyalty to the organization not the institution (an important distinction that I'll try to say something about next week), is exactly what corporatism is about.


Jonathan said...

It seems nowadays you couldn't even get the expertise to do science unless you had worked in a lab already and been part of that grant-generating and perpetuating machine. You would have been a grad student then a postdoc before you were a PI.

Thomas said...

Yes, and it's true outside the natural sciences too. What counts as an idea in philosophy these days depends greatly on whether or not it plays well in fundable domain of research.