Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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
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.