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Is American Science in Decline?

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 6, 2011 02:50 PM

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Judging by the never-ending stream of studies and discoveries touted by newspapers and magazines, American science is an unstoppable juggernaut. Unfortunately, according to economist, historian, and all-around rabble-rouser Philip Mirowski, that invincibility is an illusion. In Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, Mirowski, a professor of economics and the history of science at Notre Dame, argues that the American scientific establishment is being gutted from the inside. Science used to be all about discovering things; now, controlled by "bureaucracies uninterested in the shape of knowledge and its elusive character," it's increasingly a money-driven numbers game.

Science-Mart starts by explaining how the practice of American science has changed over the last half-century. Fifty years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, government and industry funding for scientific research was not only plentiful, but straightforward. Huge numbers of scientists worked in well-funded state universities, big companies like I.B.M. and Bell funded Nobel-Prize-winning research in vast R&D labs, and all that research was brought to market in American factories. Scientists spent all day thinking mainly about science.

The end of the Cold War, Mirowski argues, changed all that. Today, with government funding for research vastly diminished, the scientific enterprise is seen as a market, with individual labs competing to sell discoveries to investors from around the world. Scientists scramble for money, with each lab looking for its own grants or industry partnerships. Individual scientists draw up legal agreements divvying up patent ownership before research has even begun; unless they're bigwigs, scientists often don't own their own research. Even university administrators act like venture capitalists surveying an empire of start-ups: They're obsessed with ranking scientists with (ludicrously unscientific) "bibliometrics," and with raising money through university "technology transfer" programs.

The result? While there are, obviously, many productive and happy scientists, an increasing number are desperate for money, space, and freedom. Scientists work together less, and find it harder to get work done. Despite the money-saturated atmosphere, American scientific research is typically underfunded. In fact, more and more R&D for American companies is being done overseas, where scientists can work in peace, thinking less about their "productivity" stats and more about the problems they're trying to solve. As for all those statistics showing that American science is healthy (that the number of publications is increasing year-on-year, for instance, and that labs are producing patents left and right), Mirowski argues that they're misleading. In fact, like college rankings, they are easily manipulated, and merely reflect the degree to which science has become a stats game. There are more publications and patents, he argues, simply because scientists are under pressure to justify their existence to stats-obsessed university administrators. Create incentives to publish more, and scientists will publish more; that doesn't mean that they're doing better work in their underfunded, understaffed labs.

Essentially, Mirowski thinks it doesn't make sense for scientists to be driven by economic incentives, like patents, grants, or high publication rates, when they can be driven by scientific incentives, like discovery and problem-solving. As a society, we need to spend the money to let scientists be scientists. That's because science is incredibly valuable in itself. The creation of scientific values like disinterestedness, objectivity, and collaboration is one of the most important achievements of modern society. Those values need to be protected, Mirowski insists, from that society's rush to market.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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