Salvo 12.20.2021 10 minutes

Modern Science’s Broken Bargain

doctor working in hospital laboratory

It’s up to us to ensure progress serves our ends.

The founding manifesto of the modern scientific enterprise—Vannevar Bush’s 1945 classic Science: The Endless Frontier—laid down a promise: that federalizing the academic sciences would protect the universities as bastions of free inquiry and curiosity-driven research. Without such support, Bush argued, the academic sciences would be captured and enslaved by government and corporate political interests. That argument was persuasive to the political authorities of the time. Now, seven decades later, that promise stands broken. Science’s “endless frontier” has become Big Science, a self-aggrandizing cartel organized around the aggressive pursuit of federal money.

Science is grounded in Enlightenment virtues. Its core attributes are unfettered freedom of intellect; cultivation of curiosity; skepticism; dispassionate reason; and dedication to evidence. A robust modern science immensely enriches our society. In return, our society affords the sciences enormous privilege and prestige. This mutually beneficial bargain held for many generations. Scientists were free to roam the intellectual frontiers, the public mostly watched from a respectful distance, and both science and society flourished. That bargain is now unraveling, damaging both science and the society that supports it.

Less and less do the sciences serve as bulwarks of reason against political and corporatist aims. To the contrary, the sciences are becoming stridently politicized, acting as a vanguard for an authoritarianism of “expertise”. Increasingly, science is being used as a cloak to shield political agendas from normal scrutiny and debate, thereby betraying the scientific ideal.

These trends, and the reasons for them, are not hard to discern. Scientists’ careers are no longer charted by the esteem of peers, but increasingly by conformity to institutional and political interests. The natural immunity of tenure, which is intended to protect university scientists’ intellectual freedom, is being systematically gutted. Adhering to science’s core virtues, listed above, is becoming a career hazard. In the face of this, fellow scientists either remain silent, or become eager participants in a masquerade of “consensus.” Public trust in science, which turns on the common perception that scientists are avatars of dispassionate and independent inquiry, is becoming increasingly tattered. The COVID-19 spectacle is demonstrating just how fragile that public trust is.

This trend is not new, but the intrusion of identity politics into the sciences has made it toxic. Distinguished scientific careers are snuffed out in an instant. The interests of favored identity groups become the primary criteria for advancement, trumping credentials, ability, and qualification. Fealty to dogma, not respect for reason, now determines whether careers will grow, be terminated prematurely, or be aborted before they begin. Conformity and risk-aversion, behaviors once alien to the scientific enterprise, are now pervasive, enforced in Star Chamber Human Resources inquisitions.

The roots of this problem were planted in the aftermath of World War II, with the political decision to federalize scientific research. Academic science is now the client of an enormous federal spending program, dwarfing all other sources of support. This spending does not just support the work of scientists, it also provides universities a lucrative revenue stream which enables the growth of political, administrative and institutional power, to the detriment of scientists.

With the growth of the Big Science cartel, the culture of discovery that had so long been the source of scientific greatness, has been transformed into a culture of “production,” where scientists are incentivized and rewarded through bogus measures of scientific “productivity.” These metrics have only tenuous relation to intellectual innovation and discovery. They are, however, powerful conformity machines that reward grantsmanship, crowd-following, mediocrity, and allegiance to political and institutional masters. Scientific discovery has been shoved to the back of the line.

In short, the academy is no longer the vigorous custodian of the core values of a robust science. Rather, the academy has become the place where those virtues are facing their gravest threat. The academic sciences have become utterly debased, turning all members of the Big Science cartel into participants in a massive grift on the public treasury. Climate “science”, for example, is not science per se, but the stalking horse for a diversion of tens of trillions of dollars into the hands of favored political and corporate interests. There is simply no scientific basis for claiming a climate “crisis”, despite the attempts of politicians to stampede the public into thinking so. The political heavy-handedness behind COVID-19 pandemic policy has been remarkable in its suppression of science. Lurking beneath is a barely-hidden web of collusion between governments, NGOs, universities, and self-interested scientists, all motivated by the desire to keep the money flowing.

The modern social bargain struck with science after the War was founded on the assumption that independent, skeptical, and dispassionate scholars would be an invaluable source of methodical good judgment and resistance to half-cocked political and corporate agendas. The Big Science cartel, propped up by enormous federal subsidies, has mostly subordinated those virtues.  It is time to face a hard truth: the seventy year experiment to federalize the sciences has been a failure.  The task now is to prevent the Big Science cartel from further dehumanizing society and delegitimizing science. There is a second hard truth: the necessary reforms will not come from within. Rather, it will be the people and their representatives that will have to impose them. To restore science to its rightful and valuable place, break up the Big Science cartel.

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