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.”

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