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Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research? | The Nation

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Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research?

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In the 1970s, a new external threat and new forms of technology began to usher in a still different set of institutional arrangements and fresh conception of the scientist's character and social role. The anxiety now came not from Soviet missiles but Japanese engineers. Big Science had become too big, too slow. Corporate and federal bureaucratic dinosaurs had to be supplanted, or at least supplemented, by a nimbler species. Academia, where most cutting-edge research was done, was seen as the likeliest reservoir of potential talent. Industry started funding university science; Washington started funding applied research. Schools, seeing the potential for large new revenue streams, set up offices to oversee the marketing of intellectual property; professors entered into private partnerships to develop their discoveries or left academia altogether to found start-ups. These initiatives were instrumental in opening the two vast and lucrative fields that have dominated technological development over the past three decades: IT and biotech. The corporatization of the American university had begun. By 2001, the dean of engineering at the University of California, San Diego, Shapin's longtime institutional home (he is now at Harvard), could claim that academia had added a third to its two core missions. The goals of the modern university, he said, were teaching, research and technology transfer. The school's president went one better, overturning the old conceptions altogether. "As scholars," he announced, "we should not seek knowledge for its own sake." Einstein had given way to Bill Gates. The new hero of science was, and still is, the technological entrepreneur.

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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Loud choruses of protest greeted all of these developments. In "Science as a Vocation" (1918), Max Weber suggests that the scientist's immense moral authority would be lost if the pursuit of knowledge were diverted to utilitarian ends. In Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith (1925), a novel that inspired generations of American scientists, the eponymous protagonist struggles to choose between his passion for pure research and the more tangible rewards of a medical career, finally following the loftier, lonelier path. After the war, William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) was only the most visible of many works warning that bureaucratic hierarchy and conformity would smother the independent creative spirit necessary for true innovation. The concerns were practical as well as moral. By trying to organize an inherently unpredictable and individualistic pursuit, Big Science, it was felt, would "kill the goose that lays the golden egg." And in its desire to maintain the secrecy of proprietary information, corporate culture would stifle the openness essential to the diffusion and advancement of knowledge. More recent commentators have worried about the infection of academia by the profit motive. Would academic scientists, seduced by outside opportunities, neglect their duty to train the next generation of researchers--or even worse, put their graduate students to work on private commercial projects? Would universities shift resources away from less potentially lucrative fields of study and areas of research, whatever their intrinsic intellectual value?

To the criticisms of outside observers--social commentators and social scientists--Shapin opposes the testimonies of scientists. Drawing on trade journals and other materials for the postwar period and on his own interviews with academic and corporate scientists for the period of the high-tech boom, Shapin debunks assumptions about the effects of industrial organization on the mores and morale of research workers. Contrary to popular belief, industrial labs give scientists time to pursue their own projects, encourage publication in academic journals and recognize the need to allow researchers room to think. (A Kodak scientist once described his job to me by saying, "They ask me a question, and I go away and work on it for six months.") Shapin repeatedly quotes laboratory managers to the effect that the one thing research directors must never try to do is direct research. Their real job is to shield the lab from the pressures emanating from corporate management, especially from a shortsighted accounting of the costs and benefits of research. A famous anecdote has an efficiency expert complaining to Henry Ford about the one fellow at the company who always seemed to have his feet up on his desk. "That man," Ford replied, "once had an idea that saved us millions of dollars."

Shapin's key concept here is uncertainty. The unpredictable path of scientific discovery--the fact that no one knows what the future might look like, or how we might get there--requires patience and flexibility on the part of research managers, a willingness to indulge the spirit of inquiry. Most lines of investigation will wind up at a dead end, some will arrive at profitability, a few will lead beyond the dreams of avarice. Shapin's final chapter traces the same logic at work among the venture capitalists who fund start-ups, the incubators of today's tomorrows. Because success is so uncertain, VCs invest in people as much as ideas, moral qualities like passion and fortitude as much as the promise of a technology or the logic of a business plan.

As for the organizational dispensation that venture capital has helped usher in, the hybridization of academy and industry, Shapin quotes voices on all sides of the debate. Some scientists, including those with experience in the private sector, deplore what they see as the conformity, hierarchy and materialism of the corporate environment. Others, though, are equally disillusioned by academia--not only the burden of teaching duties and the constant scramble for grant money but the paradoxical fact that universities, having absorbed a great deal of managerial philosophy of late, have created environments that are often more hierarchical, tightly controlled and inimical to intellectual autonomy, especially for the young scientist, than corporations. Still others welcome the integration of the two spheres. Academic researchers may put students to work on commercial projects, but that kind of training is exactly what a lot of them want, and not necessarily for materialistic reasons. Industry offers the chance to have a more immediate impact on the world: to see the results of one's work in tangible form and to contribute in direct ways to the social good. It also affords a broader range of personal challenges, a greater intellectual variety and the chance to be part of a team of equals.

All of this is unarguable as far as it goes, but it leaves most of the important contemporary questions about science and society unaddressed. To be fair, these are not really Shapin's concerns. His primary goal is to scrape away the ideological barnacles that have accreted around the image of the scientist so as to see what kinds of virtues and values scientific work actually involves. His larger theoretical agenda is to overturn the social-scientific dogma that holds that modernity involves an inexorable shift from Weberian charisma to impersonal authority, from "subjectivity to objectivity, the personal to the methodically mechanical, the individual to the institutional": to show that the virtues of "familiar people"--specific individuals known to one another through face-to-face contact--still matter.

But even if Shapin's subject is the scientist rather than science per se, his account implies a particular view of the latter. So determined is he to avoid any hint of evaluative intent, so resolved on answering the biases of earlier commentators with a scrupulously bland descriptiveness, that he ends up projecting a kind of laissez-faire attitude. Some scientists like to work in the academy, some like to work in industry, some like to straddle the two--it's all good. But is it all good? It is for the scientists, if they can find their way to a place that suits their temperament. What matters to the rest of us, though, is not whether scientists are happy with their work but whether we are. Shapin seems to assume, and in turn implies, that no matter where scientists have done their research, we have always gotten the kind of science we need. But despite our status as the world's leading scientific nation, and despite the many undoubted triumphs of American scientific research, it is not at all clear that we have.

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