Scientists, the economic crisis, and special interest strategies

Jack Stilgoe criticizes scientists for not doing more to address the economic crisis:

Much of the rhetoric of the scientific community has been about protecting its short-term health when public funding is under attack on all fronts. This was the correct tactic, but there has been little strategy… Now, surely, is the time to ask the science policy questions that are so important but rarely get asked – What science do we need and why? Who should benefit? Who should decide? – and leave open the possibility that the answers might call for a radical redesign of the scientific enterprise.

I think this attitude severely misreads the situation. Why should scientists sit quietly while their funding is being attacked? Are bankers strategizing, or are they calling for lower taxes and fewer regulations? How about teachers? Construction workers? The military? Opposing funding cuts is what interests groups do. That is their strategy.

The notion that science is a human institution created by real people, with all the flaws and biases of human institutions everywhere, is perhaps the central insight from science studies. So I’m always confused when STS scholars expect scientists to act differently than anyone else. It’s almost as if STS want their ideas to be wrong!

We are not surprised when unions and business groups fight for their members. We shouldn’t expect otherwise from the National Academies because they too are a special interest. If Stilgoe and I want to change scientists’ behavior, we’ll have to make it in their interest to do so.


  1. From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.

    First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.

    Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.

    Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?

    Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.

    But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.

  2. Thanks Praj. First, I write foremost as someone interested in Science Policy, who happens to use STS tools from time to time. So I am unashamedly normative, in a way that many pure STS scholars would find distasteful. Yes, scientists should fight for their funding, but part of fighting this fight is understanding the social contract that underpins it. If, as I contend, this social contract is changing, then scientists should recognise this, just as bankers, builders, teachers doctors, the police and the army do, even while fighting for their own interests. We all fight for our own interests, but the terms on which we do so are what matter, and what make success more likely.

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