Of Money and Science: Two Book Reviews

Paula Stephan’s observation that “not all science is created equal when it comes to funding” will not surprise any researcher who ever labored over a grant. Drugmonkey’s blog is a particularly good source of insight into how the NIH grant process works; given the importance of public funding to basic science, life science has been fortunate in receiving a disproportionate share, and arguably more than its fair share (depending on who you ask) of public money. Part of the drive to fund basic research comes out of an oft-repeated fear that the US is falling behind in the production of scientists and engineers. Yet we all know that there are not enough jobs for PhDs, insufficient funding for public universities (which then hike tuition), and PhDs have trouble transferring into jobs outside academia even as they lose interest in academic careers, especially women, who are disproportionately likely to drop out of the tenure chase. What is going wrong?

I was attracted to Paula Stephan’s book, How Economics Shapes Science, because all of these questions are at least partly about money: who gets it, for what, how it is allocated, how much a scientist can make relative to other fields. In my experience, few young scientists actually think about the financial big picture: they know that NIH and NSF and nonprofit funding organizations like HHMI are big pots of money, but they don’t necessarily know which areas get the most, or why, or how that translates into career prospects. But that’s important information for grad students and postdocs to have, not so you can go straight for the big bucks (I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be in science, if that was your goal), but so you have a sense of what the funding prospects might be down the road when you’re seeking your first RO1, and so (especially if you are in a position to change things!) you understand the policies and structures that control science funding.

Stephan’s book is a sort of primer on all of this, and as such, likely to be quite valuable as a reference. Much of the blogospheric debate about research, education, and policy ends up decoupled from actual numbers – quite understandably, since bloggers don’t have editors and hardly have time to go looking up references. But it’s unfortunate that as a result, debates about grants and graduate programs aren’t necessarily tied to the mechanics of funding. This book may not tell you anything you don’t sense to be true already, but it offers a good grounding in the numbers that add up to national science policy, and it does so in a most accessible way.

Unfortunately, the clarity and accessibility of Stephan’s book are not shared by Philip Mirowski’s Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, a book that boldly describes itself on its own flyleaf as “trenchantly analyzing the rise and decline in the quality and character of science in America since World War II.” Mirowski is interesting and provocative, and ultimately it is also a very good book for scientists to read. But I think his book is marred for a wide audience by two off-putting moves.

First, Mirowski’s book opens with the weirdly strained perspective of “intrepid academic researcher Viridiana Jones,” who is “strung out between the Scylla of Disneyfication of higher education and the Charybdis of Free EnronPrise in securing a patron, any patron, to support her inquiries in an era of impending financial doom.” Jones proved to be such an annoying caricature that I found it impossible to finish the first chapter of the book. I don’t think Mirowski intends Jones to be more than a fun frame for his argument; he’s not writing fiction, Jones does not narrate the book, and granted, Jones is a more creative frame than Stephan uses. (I hope my distaste for Jones doesn’t indicate I’m totally devoid of creativity at this point.) However, I personally found it annoying to be immediately confronted with a fictitious researcher, many of whose reactions were jarringly dissonant with my own, as a stand-in for my/scientists’ perspective. Harrumph.

Second, Mirowski is both trenchant and highly theoretical. I, for one, have a knee-jerk skepticism anytime a writer becomes trenchant about science, and as a result, I found it hard to appreciate that I actually agreed with many of the things Mirowski was saying, I just was having trouble piercing his tone and jargon. As an example of jargon, he (derogatorily) uses the term “neoliberal” throughout his book, but he is not using it in the political sense non-economists may first assume. A quote from a favorable review by Sheldon Krimsky may help:

The term neoliberal, which arises from the work of post–World War II economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and others belonging to the “Chicago school” of economics and law, has little in common with what is usually thought of as liberalism. The important tenets of neoliberalism, Mirowski says, include such propositions as the following: “The Market” is a better processor of information than the state; “politics operates as if it were a market”; “corporations can do no wrong”; “competition always prevails”; the state should be “degovernmentalized” through “privatization of education, health, science and even portions of the military”; a good way to initiate privatization is to redefine property rights; “the nation-state should be subject to discipline and limitation through international initiatives”; “the Market . . . can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by markets in the first place”; “there is no such thing as a ‘public good’”; “freedom” means economic freedom within the Market.

My main complaint is not that Mirowski is right or wrong about neoliberal economics; I’m not an economist, and heck if I know. But his book is not fashioned to be readily accessible to those readers who have not had a grounding in economic theory, which I assume includes many scientists like myself. I ran across his book while reading about Schumpeter, antitrust, incentives for industrial R&D, and IP law — none of which were subjects I ever considered in graduate school — and if it weren’t for those discussions I’d have been quite lost.

Mirowski does give his readers a basic overview of economic history/theory. But Mirowski’s book is not as friendly to skimming and dipping in here and there as Stephan’s, unless you have that grounding. Statements like “there were many other examples of neoliberal interventions in the ‘knowledge economy'” and “the neoliberal is content to render the average citizen ignorant” are not readily unpacked in either tone or content without linearly following Mirowski’s trenchant narrative (which is humorous since he thinks the linear model of science is off base). Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest Mirowski is an economic apologist: his first chapter is about how ineffective economists have been at explaining and theorizing science, he then criticizes science policy wonks for getting too cozy with economists, and argues that the foundations of the science funding edifice Stephan describes may not be as solid as the rhetoric of post-cold-war policy would suggest. So perhaps stack “iconoclast” on top of trenchancy. (If you like a good flamewar, this book should feel quite homey.)

A major focus of Mirowski’s book is that as a result of patents (post-Bayh-Dole), academic science has no choice except to mimic business, to the detriment of the knowledge it produces. This is a presumption I encountered repeatedly in law school, and I believe it’s flawed as a way of predicting how individual scientists act; in my experience, most scientists are far more interested in reputation and publishing and tenure as incentives than they are in the monetization of their inventions. Also, the allure and practicality of monetization varies dramatically depending on the scientific field. However, Mirowski’s critique of Big Science has merit, because any picture of academic science is plainly incomplete without considering the university tech transfer office seeking to assert patents whether or not the PI is particularly interested, or the postdoc seeking a patent because she’s realized there is no way in heck she wants to be a PI, and she’d like to spin off a startup, or the possible problems patents pose to experimentation (particularly clinical). Just this week, a geoengineering experiment was cancelled because some of the scientists involved had filed for patents on related technology. It’s getting harder and harder to separate commercial research and academic research.

I am far from qualified to say if Mirowski is right about academic science. But his critiques are cogent, he’s witty (ignoring Viridiana, he has lots of clever snarkiness in his own voice), and if you have the patience to really dig in, it is a very provocative book.

Mirowski’s book also does very different things than Stephan’s book, even though it is on some level about the same set of issues. The best aspect of Mirowski’s book may be that it lifts the curtain on a very important debate taking place largely outside academic science, in law and economics and, to some extent, in science policy. Many, many debates about how science should be funded, structured, and rewarded do not take place within the scientific community. It’s unfortunate, as scientists have much to contribute — such as what they find to be effective incentives, why they do or don’t pursue patentable research goals, whether they are hindered in their work by patents, and how they think courts ought to look at scientific testimony or intellectual property protections. So as with Stephan’s book, I think this is well worth consideration for the summer reading list — even though it’s a bit heavy for the beach.

Stephan’s How Economics Shapes Science (amazon)
Mirowski’s Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (amazon)

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