Wednesday, April 25, 2012


By Keith McDowell

As former Vice President Spiro Agnew famously said, “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4H Club: the hopeless, hysterical, hypochondriacs of history.” He also informed us that “an intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike.” Sadly, Spiro never anticipated geeks embracing the world of cycling. And personally, I always thought of Spiro as a pusillanimous purveyor of prevarications. But then, perhaps we should put aside our alliterative thesaurus and get to the point. Words matter!

Unfortunately, what poses as modern discourse is now framed by the “sound bite” and instant gratification for data, no matter how silly or whether true or false. Understanding and wisdom have long since been overrun by TV commentators rushing to be the first with a new and trivial twist to an old story, or political pundits pushing for personal gain by access to air time through polarization of society, or true believers being, well, true believers. And how about the fascination with YouTube uploads and the nameless person’s fifteen minutes of fame after going viral?  Hmmm, maybe Spiro was right about those nattering nabobs!

Not to be outdone, academe – or the “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” according to Spiro – also contributes to the cacophony of conflicting opinion, usually through the introduction of new terminology. Take, for example, the expression “neoliberal science.” I recently ran into that phrase in conjunction with the commercialization of university research and decided to find out what it meant by chasing down the referenced research paper entitled Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science by Lave, Mirowski, and Randalls.

I pushed the download button and waited with baited breath and anticipation for the expected pdf file. I knew for certain that my life would forever be changed by learning the true meaning of “neoliberal science.” But alas, I got a message that told me I could enjoy a day with the requested paper for a mere $25. Yikes, I thought. The publication industry strikes again! I’ve been denied open access to critical research. Furtively, I thought about doing an in-depth Google search in the hope of finding a secret and free posting of the paper, perhaps on one of the author’s websites. But that would be cheating and my Boy Scout training won the day. Of course, I could also drive to the UT Austin campus, visit the library, and photocopy the paper from the journal, assuming that library budget cuts had not axed the journal. But then the travel, parking, and photocopy costs would likely surpass $25. Was “neoliberal science” really worth $25? In a moment of clarity, I realized why the phrase was connected with commercialization. They wanted my money!

Being the tightwad that I am, I reviewed what remained to me; namely, the abstract to the paper. Therein, I was provided with a list of the outcomes of neoliberal science, specifically:
 “the rollback of public funding for universities; the separation of research and teaching missions, leading to rising numbers of temporary faculty, the dissolution of the scientific author; the narrowing of research agendas to focus on the needs of commercial actors; an increasing reliance on market take-up to adjudicate intellectual disputes; and the intense fortification of intellectual property in an attempt to commercialize knowledge, impeding the production and dissemination of science.”

Wow! Important outcomes for a phrase most of us have never heard of. Speaking of which, why is it neoliberal instead of neoconservative, neoprogressive, neoregressive, or neowhatever? For that matter, are any of these outcomes new or are we just seeing the waxing and waning of old outcomes as the underlying driving forces ebb and flow? And does any of this make a difference to the progress and practice of science? Inquiring minds would like to know … if only I was willing to part with the $25.

But the “neoliberal science” terminology is only part of a much bigger story as revealed by the abbreviation STS appearing in the title of the research paper. In my day, STS meant “supersonic transport system” – not to be confused with SST which meant “supersonic transport.” And as a NASA buff, STS refers to “standard threshold shift” and appears in the enumeration of space shuttle flights – the launch of STS-115 being forever burned into my own personal memory banks. But to the modern day sociologist, STS stands for “science, technology and society.” And goodness, they even have a wikipedia page that explains what STS is all about and how it came to be a new discipline joining the ranks of the philosophy of science and the science of science policy.

Like most scientists and the common man, I’ve always wanted to be admired and revered, but maybe not as the “human subject” of some discipline’s IRB protocol. I don’t seem to remember signing a consent form! Speaking of which, I have nearly forty years worth of all my research notes scanned and available for anyone who wants to figure out how I did what I did or didn’t do. Only the recent material is missing and I’ll happily scan it for a contribution of $25. Any takers? I’ll throw in a bonus interview with me if you can read my handwriting.

The study of science and more broadly the STEM field from all perspectives is an important undertaking and one that I applaud and believe to be essential to advancing science and ultimately the condition of humankind. Hopefully, it can be done without conflating the adjective “neoliberal” with politics and thereby creating confusion and potentially painting science and scientific research as a political activity which it manifestly is not. President Harry S. Truman had it right. What we need today is some “plain speaking.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

So You Want To Be An Entrepreneur?

By Keith McDowell

Have you noticed those strange new people lurking in the halls of academe, garbed in the modern version of geek-wear, and conversing in a language putatively unknown to the older savants? Some appear to be driven by the prospect of money and wealth. Some by an intense focused activity anticipating the outcome. Some by the adrenalin highs and lows of their work as they tirelessly attempt to convince others of their version of reality. And some by simple addiction to the process, whatever the specific reason. Who are these strangers? They’re called entrepreneurs!

The popular press would have us believe that entrepreneurs are the salvation for a declining American economy – the “job and wealth creators” for the next generation, notwithstanding the peculiar view by some conservatives that wealthy Americans create jobs. Others see them as the “new new” thing that we as a society have somehow failed to nourish in our educational system or to incentivize by our rules and regulations.

And yet others would have us transform the American research university into a training camp for entrepreneurs and a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity with discovery-based research focused on innovations for the commercial marketplace as the driving force for the formation of startup companies by a new breed of entrepreneurial faculty. But is any of this real or new? Do we truly want faculty members to become entrepreneurs? And how many do we need?

In my day, science entrepreneurs dominated the halls of academe as opposed to business entrepreneurs. They were no different than the modern business version in their behavior, but were simply the hot item of the mid-twentieth century. But then there were also faculty members who spun out magnetic resonance imaging as a medical tool and who marketed computational chemistry to the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, it seems almost trite to say that we’ve always had entrepreneurial activity in its many flavors in academe and that our attention span for a specific flavor ebbs and flows over time, but yet it’s true. That doesn’t mean, however, that the academic culture doesn’t change and evolve. It does! Witness the growth of grantsmanship as a prime exemplar of such evolution. Or how about the impact of research compliance?

In many ways, coming to grips with new-age entrepreneurial faculty is nothing new and mostly a replay of past history. As always, one finds a spectrum of people with a diversity of skill sets and a need for someone to manage expectations. Can such business entrepreneurial skills be taught or is that effort a waste of time? Most faculty members are overworked with little or no time to engage in technology commercialization and business entrepreneurship, much less with time to learn a new trade.

And the business entrepreneurial skill set is indeed distinct from creating a brand for one’s science skills, or generating a flow of grant funding, or placing one’s graduate students into suitable jobs, or any of the other activities engaged in by faculty. Let’s be clear. Discovery, innovation, technology transfer and commercialization, entrepreneurship, and economic development are different activities.  Done right, each takes time and effort and a particular set of skills. But let’s assume for the moment that we have a faculty member eager to engage in business entrepreneurship including possibly the formation of a company based on some of their research. Exactly how does that happen? Will they be rewarded? And should it be encouraged?

In most universities today, the explicit process of converting a research discovery or innovation into intellectual property and transferring that property to a commercial entity including a startup is straightforward and routine despite the braying one often hears from the pundits. Even better, many universities have tight contractual arrangements with companies that permit joint R&D with shared revenue return and wealth creation. Suffice it to say that the culture and practice of technology commercialization is alive and well at most universities and rapidly transforming itself into an effective, efficient, and well-understood process. Faculty as innovators is mostly a done deal. If you don’t believe me, read my previous articles!

The same can not be said yet for faculty as business entrepreneurs, although major experimentation is underway. There are several significant barriers and even “show-stoppers” that must be surmounted including faculty acceptance of entrepreneurial activity as evidence for tenure, promotion, and salary increases; conflict of commitment; conflict of interest; compliance with federal and state rules and regulations for grant funding; and ethical treatment of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, to name my favorites. Let’s briefly review each of these barriers.

Faculty acceptance of any activity as proper and acceptable performance has always been shifting ground, not to mention entrepreneurship as a permissible activity. For example, industrial funding for scholarly activity or research was considered “dirty money” in the mid-twentieth century. I perfectly well recall the debate at faculty meetings during the 1970s when that prejudice finally fell by the wayside. But today, industrial funding is back on the table again as we demand transparency in the support of our research. Should we distrust published research from a faculty member in support of fracking when that research is supported by a major oil company? Certainly such funding should be acknowledged in the publication.

And exactly what is conflict of commitment? In very simple terms, it has to do with the fact that when one signs their university contract – more often, a line at the end of an offer letter, one agrees to full time employment as a faculty member – usually as an “exempt” employee. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many hours per week you work, you are an employee of the university. So what happens if you start a company or business on the side? Then you have a conflict of commitment! Universities have long dealt with the issue of a consulting business and typically permit one day per week for consulting. Serving as an officer in a company is a trickier undertaking and to date has been treated using a so-called “management plan.” Personally, I don’t think we’ve figured out how best to handle the conflict of commitment issue, especially at public universities where tax dollars partially support faculty salaries. Do we really want tax dollars potentially supporting employees of a private company and being laundered through the university? It’s a tough question!

Conflict of interest for a faculty entrepreneur is usually straightforward, although faculty members are sometimes blind to the conflict. Often the conflict resides in the federal rules and regulations that supported the original research. More often, the conflict comes from the faculty entrepreneur as an officer of the company having the responsibility to decide the distribution of income directly to himself or to himself through the university.

The ethical treatment of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is also a significant issue and one that I’ve personally had to adjudicate on several occasions. In simple terms, it goes like this. Should a faculty entrepreneur have the ability as a faculty dissertation advisor to require a graduate student to work at their startup company? It happens, it can be abusive, and it’s not settled policy on how to handle it. The mantra that it’s good for the student to experience the “real world of business” isn’t sufficient.

Despite these hurdles, “faculty as entrepreneurs” is a growing and challenging part of academe, although not new. It should be nourished, managed, and permitted to grow as research universities move from a service role in their local communities to one of active engagement as engines of innovation. But don’t be fooled by the hyperventilated rhetoric coming from some quarters about transforming universities into entrepreneurial mills or the potential pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if we only “hurry up” and change how universities function. We shouldn’t ditch academe and our time-honored practices just because someone has their “hair on fire,” is too blind to see what’s actually before them and how scientific research truly gets done, and foolishly ignores the past. Been there, done that! It’s called re-inventing the wheel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Price of Distrust

By Keith McDowell

According to a recent study by Gordon Gauchat entitled Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010, thirty-five percent of “new right” conservatives have a “great deal of distrust in science” and this distrust is especially true for well-educated conservatives! And even worse, the distrust has been growing since 1974. How can this be? Has the putative “war on science” by the “new right” and their continuing denial of evolution, global climate change, and many other major tenants of modern science truly gone viral in that segment of American society? Sadly, the answer appears to be yes!

And what explains this reversal in the trust of science by conservatives since the early part of the twentieth century as shown in the chart below from Gauchat? Indeed, does the answer lie in the emergence of the “new right” or are there other forces at play? Gauchat posits three themes to be tested by his data: (1) cultural ascendancy, (2) alienation, and (3) politicization. And the winner is – politicization!

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. Nor am I surprised that well-educated “new right” conservatives distrust science. It’s all part of a game being played by some very intelligent people. What did surprise me at times in the study was the rather myopic and uninformed discussion by Gauchat, although the study is a well-written and must-read contribution to the “trust in science” debate. For example, Gauchat seemed to imply that politicization of science is a new thing. Tell that to those engaged in the great scientific racism debate of the nineteenth century where “science” was used to defend slavery, or to the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century designed to breed improved humans through self-direction of human evolution, or to the Bell curve debate supported by Nobel Laureate William Shockley, or to the shocking comments by Nobel Laureate James Watson in 2007 that led to his resignation as Director of Cold Springs Harbor.  History is replete with examples of the politicization of science. It is not new.

And for that matter, exactly what do we mean by the term “science” in the context of the “trust in science” debate? Gauchat delivers a clear and concise presentation of the “What is science?” question pointing out the conventional definition of “science” as a methodology and a body of knowledge, but also recognizing “science” as being a social system encompassing such issues as diversity in the STEM workforce and gatekeeping by the scientific establishment (Gauchat eschews this term) with respect to grantsmanship and publication. Of course, conservatives clearly believe the establishment is suppressing those scientists who support intelligent design or oppose global warming. Gauchat further points out the role of science as a cultural authority in the formation of public policy and in the government regulation of industry and other sectors of American life. Curtailing such regulations, considered intrusion by the new right, is near and dear to conservatives.

But exactly what is it that the conservatives distrust? Is it conventional science and its body of knowledge? Is it the scientific establishment and its functioning as a social system? Is it the regulatory and public policy outcomes founded on scientific data? Or is it the scientists themselves, portrayed by some as atheists and liberals actively engaged in changing the world as we know it and living off the largesse of the American taxpayer? Unfortunately, it’s all of the above! And that cannot be good for America as we strive to compete in a global economy where innovation founded on reality will be an essential driving force.

Whose reality will it be? According to Gauchat, “… conservatism in the United States has become a cultural domain that generates its own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of science.” Okay. It conflicts with the “cultural authority” but what about the body of scientific knowledge? Is this a verbal distinction by Gauchat without a difference? Are we playing games with the definition of “is” again ala the Clinton impeachment proceedings? And why is there seemingly no penalty for creating a false reality not based in science or provable facts? Is Dylan Ratigan right in his book Greedy Bastards that the world is populated with some very clever people playing a ruthless and cynical game to maximize personal gain and benefit by extraction from the other 99%?

And that begs another question: is science the only cultural authority suffering a decline in trust? Gauchat introduces the question, but provides no analysis. And furthermore, how valid is his data and his presentation? Should it be trusted as an affirmation of what we obviously see in the body politic? I think yes, but with a proviso. At the risk of trivializing an important debate, I hasten to point out that a survey in 2010 found that 1 in 5 global citizens believe in aliens. Other surveys indicate that many Americans believe that dinosaurs and man coexisted at the same time. Folks, we must face the fact that far too many of our fellow citizens are scientifically illiterate, not to mention the silly “chapter seven” brouhaha caused by the National Science Board’s redaction of data on science literacy in its annual report of 2010.

I accept that distrust of authority in moderation is possibly a good thing, although likely a pernicious step onto a slippery slope leading to abject cynicism and even rebellion against established authority. On the other hand, questioning and testing authority and dogma against known facts and through continued observation and discovery of new facts is at the heart of the traditional liberal philosophy and at the core of the scientific method. It is a systematic and reality-based process founded on rational analysis and not an act of distrust. Ultimately, over time, such discovered truth prevails even in the face of ideological truculence, misanthropy, politicization, or subversion for financial and personal gain.

But progress can be erratic and even retrograde as experienced during the period of the Dark Ages and more recently with the rise of Islamic radicalism. And progress, whether it leads to modernity or not, can be frightening and challenging to some people as the accelerating pace of technology changes our lives and the so-called “culture war” yields a growing acceptance of “gay marriage” as one example of what some people perceive as a decline in our moral behavior. Clearly, progress for some is interpreted by others as a decline in civilization.

But notwithstanding the vicissitudes of life under the inevitable march of progress driven by innovations, whether technological or cultural, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our children to adhere to a principle of rational thought based on provable truths and not to worship false gods. Such a principle does not eliminate or conflict with a belief in God nor does it require one to forgo religious beliefs. Furthermore, it doesn’t favor a conventional liberal or a conventional conservative point of view. But it does challenge extremism founded on falsehoods, no matter from the left or from the right.

We cannot allow distrust in science to become a cancerous growth on American society. I challenge everyone to engage the debate. Become fluent on global warming, alternative energy, contraceptives as a medical tool, and all the other important issues of our day. Don’t accept the argument that cellphones cause cancer just because someone said so on the Internet. If you don’t become engaged, the prosperity that you envision for the future of America will be poisoned by the bitter pill of distrust.