Saturday, May 16, 2009

Post-Academic Science

In a comment to a post aptly titled "Mercketing" by Frank Pasquale at Concurring Opinions, I attempted to place his discussion of the "the latest twist in the sorry saga of modern drug marketing" in the bigger picture of "post-academic science" as analyzed so thoroughly and convincingly by John Ziman in Real Science: What It Is, and What It Means (2000). What follows is a summary characterization of same, and I thought it of sufficient interest to cross-post here:

What has happened in this instance is symptomatic of the myriad problems that are part and parcel of “post-academic science” in general for, in John Ziman’s words, “In less than a generation we have witnessed a radical, irreversible, worldwide transformation in the way that science is organized, managed and performed.” For a detailed exposition of precisely what constitutes post-academic science, one should consult Ziman’s Real Science: What It Is, and What It Means (2000), but permit me here to highlight a few features he documents (largely those that make for discontinuity with its predecessor, namely, academic science, thus I’m ignoring, unlike Ziman, those elements which make for continuity):

…[P]ost-academic science is under pressure to give more obvious value for money. Many features of the new mode of knowledge production have arisen ‘in the context of application’–that is, in the course of research on technological, environmental, medical or societal problems. More generally, science is being pressed into the service of the nation as the driving force in a national R&D system, a wealth-creating techno-scientific motor for the whole economy.

…[A] norm of utility is being injected into every joint of the research culture. Discoveries are evaluated commercially before they have been validated scientifically. [....] Scientists themselves are seldom in a good position to assess the utility of their work, so expert peer review is enlarged into ‘merit review’ by non-specialist ‘users.’

…[A]s researchers become more dependent on project grants, the ‘Matthew Effect’ is enhanced. Competition for real money takes precedence over competition for scientific credibility as the driving force of science. With so many researchers relying completely on research grants or contracts for their personal livelihood, winning these becomes an end in itself. Research groups are transformed into small business enterprises. The metaphorical forum of scientific opinion is turned into an actual market in research services.

…[T]he social organization of academic science can be described in terms of…Mertonian norms [i.e., Communalism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, Originality, and Scepticism, or CUDOS]. This description is, of course, highly idealized, but not completely unrealistic. Industrial science, by contrast, contravenes these norms at almost every point. [....] Very schematically, industrial science is Proprietary, Local, Authoritarian, Commissioned, and Expert. It produces proprietary knowledge that is not necessarily made public. It is focused on local technical problems rather than on general understanding. Industrial researchers act under managerial authority rather than as individuals. Their research is commissioned to achieve practical goals, rather than undertaken in the pursuit of knowledge. They are employed as expert problem-solvers, rather than for their personal creativity. It is no accident, moreover, that these attributes spell out ‘PLACE.’ That, rather than ‘CUDOS,’ is what you get for doing good industrial science. As Ziman elsewhere notes, the development of much closer relationships between academia and industry is one of the major features of the transition from academic to post-academic science.

Post-academic science is organized on market principles. One of the consequences of this is that the post-academic research project is subordinate to the sphere of influence of bodies with the corresponding material interests. Thus, for example, basic research findings in molecular genetics have potential applications in plant breeding. Agrochemical firms and farmers are therefore deemed to have a legitimate right to influence the course of this research, from the formulation of projects to the interpretation of outcomes.

In general…post-academic natural scientists can usually be trusted to tell ‘nothing but the truth,’ on matters about which they are knowledgeable. But unlike academic scientists, they are not bound to tell ‘the whole truth.’ They are often prevented, in the interests of their employers, clients or patrons, from revealing discoveries or expressing doubts that would put a very different complexion on their testimony. The meaning of what is said is secretly undermined by what is not said. This proprietorial attitude to the results of research has become so familiar that we have forgotten how damaging it is to the credibility of scientists and their institutions. This is one result of the fact that ‘the context of application’ is largely defined by the material interests of bodies outside science.

For better and worse, the problems that activate post-academic science are often deeply rooted in history, and are typically ‘owned’ by well-established institutions, such as pharmaceutical companies, arms procurement agencies, associations of engineering and medical practitioners, environmental protection commissions, economic advisory councils, and so on. This elaborate social structure is associated with an equally elaborate epistemic structure, where the ‘problem areas’ are differentiated much more arbitrarily, and are often narrow and specialized [despite the well-known fact that many of the issues tackled by science and society demand a 'transdisciplinary' approach], than they are in academic science.

In short, we have increasing subordination to corporate and political interests that do not put a high value on the production of knowledge for the benefit of society at large.
Addendum: I noticed after I posted this that today happens to be Ziman's birthday!
Update: A nice illustration of one of the differences between academic and post-academic science as the distinction is drawn by Ziman is found in this column by Michael Hiltzik from the Business section of the Los Angeles Times:

"Investor-funded research could bring march of science to a standstill."
From the article:
...[I]n the biotech world, where millions or even billions of dollars in profits beckon to those who can assert ownership of important discoveries, good intentions and purely scientific goals don't matter like they used to. Access by basic researchers to the essential building blocks of biomedical advances has been shrinking for years, thanks to a land rush by entrepreneurs wielding patent portfolios.
As the conflict between CHOC and StemCells suggests, the penetration of private investment concerns into what used to be largely academic pastures threatens to hobble, rather than hasten, the march of science. The harvest may be secrecy, delay and the directing of research only toward developments that promise quick financial returns.
In the stem cell field, "the pendulum may have swung too far" toward private enterprise and away from open research, says Gregory D. Graff, a patent expert at Colorado State University.


Blogger Frank Pasquale said...

That's a great post, Patrick. IT leads me to question Steven Shapin's sunny picture of continuity:

"I am impressed that both industrial and academic scientists seem to want environments in which they can do interesting work and, perhaps, to enjoy a degree of freedom in doing that work."

But where are the values?

5/16/2009 2:11 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Thank you Frank.

There's a nice review of Shapin's latest book by Barbara Herrnstein Smith in the London Review of Books, Vol. 31, No. 3 (12 February 2009), available online only to subscribers. Herrnstein is somewhat critical of Shapin's "sunny picture of continuity." I really think Ziman captures both the continuity and discontinuity remarkably well. He was, after all, a practicing scientist who developed a taste and talent for 'metascientific" reflections if not philosophy of science. I think it's the single best one volume on the state of the scientific enterprise today.

5/16/2009 4:13 PM  

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