Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Deprofessionalization of Science

About a year ago, before Chris Mooney left science blogging for politics, he and his guest bloggers were framing the rift between scientists and conservatives as a rejection of science by conservative leaders.  Even if one accepts his thesis, that there is a disconnect between modern mainstream conservatives and the scientific community, his interpretation assumes that it is the conservative movement that has moved.  An alternative explanation is that science has moved to the left, and abandoned conservatives.

At the risk of disappointing and conspiracy nutters out there, I am not going to suggest that this is some fiendish plot.  Rather, I will suggest three unrelated factors that have had the side effect of moving the practice of science from a mainstream all-American profession to an ivory tower extravagance.  40 years ago, conservatives could mingle with scientists and understands their views simply by talking down the pew, or chatting at the school fete.  But in the last 30 years, scientists have, in many cases, disappeared from suburban middle class life, allowing a disconnect to form.

The first, and most direct effect was the Bayh-Dole act, passed by congress in 1980.  This law basically allowed non-profit organizations who received federal funding to patent the results of research funded by the government.  In practice, it meant that scientific research could be outsourced to universities, which could then subsidize it with federal funding and achieve greater productivity by employing grad students and technicians for salaries much lower than were found in the private sector.  As a result, R&D started moving out of the (generally conservative) private sector and into (liberal) academia.

The second effect was the financial deregulation and associated wave of mergers and acquisitions that characterized the 1980’s.  When two companies, each with a professional R&D lab,, merged, more often than not one of the labs was closed- or drastically downsized- resulting in job losses at that site. Once again, middle-class, professional scientist positions disappeared.

The third effect was the end of the cold war around 1990.  The cold war employed thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians to conceptualize, design, and build the weapons necessary to keep the USSR at bay.  It was these educated, technological conservatives who kept California reliably republican throughout the cold war.  But when the Soviet Union fell apart, the USA also demilitarized, and conservative, military-related science and technology jobs were hardest hit.

Note that none of these events was designed to sever the link between science and conservatism.  It was an unintended consequence.  But the growth of academic science at the expense of professional science has resulted in the problem of scientists being less available outside the liberal enclaves of research universities and federal research labs. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks Chuck. I would have never thought of things that way. Makes a lot of sense. Sue

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a link too with more people choosing courses that are aimed at 'money-making' careers like finance, law, management , etc. which tend to be more politically conservative?

Schenck said...

These are some really interesting points. But also, as the scientists have moved into the academic world, isn't there some responsibility on the part of the public to seek out scientists?

As an aside, I wonder if fossil fuel companies are one of the remaining big bastions of non-academic professional scientists, and if changes in that industry might increase the effect you're describing? Or, on the other hand, with oil-shales poised to become productive resources, there will be more hiring of professional scientists? Are geoscienists (and you could probably include engineers there too) less removed from the political mainstream? If so that would probably support your idea.

Andrew Alden said...

The only flaw in this analysis, which I otherwise quite like, is that the US has not demilitarized at all.

Brian said...

Depends on definitions of 'science' and 'research' nowadays ... I just don't think private sector feels they can pour money into basic research (question-based investigation that may not have an obvious or immediate application) because of the narrow/short-term context of business. That is, they need to show return on investment over quicker and quicker time frames. So, perhaps this fits w/in your second point.

Chuck said...

That's my whole point! Places like Bell labs used to be leaders in basic physics, but that just doesn't happen any more because it is no longer cost-effective.

The USA went through a huge demilitarism phase in between the end of the cold war and 9/11. The onle question about our remilitarization is where does the monrey go, and who is getting employed?