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Academically Correct Biological Science

Steven Vogel

Scene 1. The chair of the biology department asks the dean for permission to replace a retiring faculty member. The petitioner poses carefully phrased arguments about instructional needs, departmental balance and the area in which a good person might be recruited. These meet polite disinterest. Instead, the dean pointedly inquires about the prospects for obtaining large-scale external funding in the field of the intended appointment.

Scene 2. A no-longer-so-young faculty member asks the dean why, despite copious and notable publications, continuous research funding, and adequate teaching and service, tenure has been denied. The dean explains that areas in which scholarship doesn't depend on major funding simply yield too little recovery of overhead.

Scene 3. The dean submits to the president a ranking in which the department's position is much lower than in a well-publicized national evaluation. The basis of the dean's ranking is outside funding per faculty member. The dean asserts that this datum truly measures the worth of a department in the eyes of its peers.

Are these scenarios farfetched? Both my experience and conversations with colleagues working in the life sciences on many university campuses suggest that they're now routine. Accusations of buck chasing, buck passing or intellectual abdication—pick your pejorative—are easy enough to level. The underlying issue is at once more subtle and more serious than these pejoratives suggest, and it is no ordinary academic turf war. These scenarios describe in microcosm the impact of a growing institutional preference for expensive science—a preference with pernicious implications for universities and for science.

Biology includes in its traditional purview items as disparate as the instantaneous configurations of large molecules and changes in the cohabitants of the earth over the past few billion years. At present, though, the majority of biologists focus on molecules and subcellular phenomena, and most of the money spent on biological research supports this work. The combination of their overall expense and their high cost per investigator has turned these subjects into what we might call, to subvert a fashionable phrase, "academically correct" biology.

Figure 1. ParadoxicallyClick to Enlarge Image

Academically correct biology has four important features. It seeks molecular explanations. It views scientific progress as a matter of incremental accretion of detail. Its fairly immediate goal is human therapy. And its operation is unabashedly entrepreneurial. All four characteristics prove conveniently consistent with an overall goal of institutional growth. But used together as a basis for academic decision making, they reflect an allocation of resources of limited (and largely unexamined) scientific rationality; and, in a world of finite resources, this canonical effort must displace other kinds of investigation. Furthermore, each feature, it can be easily argued, is historically peculiar.

The New Reductionism

Molecular explanation as a dominant paradigm accords well with our justified respect for reductionist explanations in science. In part, it rests on the specific and notable successes of molecular biology itself. But its dominance of present-day biology also comes simply from the availability of support for it. In particular, the National Institutes of Health has become the largest source of funding for scientific activities at many universities, and the NIH seems especially fond of the chemo-reductionist paradigm.

The ostensibly rapid progress of molecular biology deserves a more skeptical examination than it usually gets. On a conceptual level, which is what ought to matter most for a university, it has yielded great explanatory richness—over the past three decades perhaps matching that of evolutionary biology. Molecular biology has even contributed to the great contemporary renaissance of the latter. But the unprecedented concentration of personal and material resources may have produced a peculiar paradox. The field may now be progressing at a rate as slow as that of any area of science ever actively pursued—if we consider conceptual progress relative to the number of active investigators. The implications are serious, whether for a person looking for an area where there's a good chance of making a major contribution or—of especial relevance here—for a university intent on contributing to science.

The reductionist appeal of molecular biology deserves scrutiny as well. For one thing, molecular explanations aren't the only useful kind of reduction—solutions to many biological problems have turned on mathematical models, Newtonian physics, systems analysis and so forth. Furthermore, reduction is only one manifestation of the abstraction and generalization that characterizes science.

To What End, at What Cost?

Science without data is unimaginable, but data are not science. Equating the acquisition of data with the progress of science tacitly asserts that great generalizations must necessarily follow when sufficient data are amassed, surely an uncertain proposition. Certainly, though, gathering data along well-established lines is a particularly predictable activity. And activities with predictable costs and rates of progress will be favored by a very contract-like granting system. But a university must ask how an emphasis on data acquisition affects its intellectual climate, since it not only does science but also produces scientists.

The history of science tells us that few major conceptual advances were driven by anticipation of immediate utility. The achievements of great biologists such as Harvey, Darwin and Mendel were neither responsive to contemporary problems nor responsible for short-term therapeutic gain. Perhaps the advances in microbiology during the last half of the 19th century went hand in hand with improvements in medicine and public health, but the case is exceptional.

Ultimately practical benefit will come from fundamental biological progress, especially from progress in molecular biology. Less obviously, excessive focus by a university on therapy as a short-term goal is unhealthy: Too often resources will be concentrated on projects of lower fundamental importance and intellectual interest. At the least, such projects will have an illiberal influence on the education of undergraduates—they synonymize science and applied science when each has distinct value. However important technological progress may be, fostering an application-directed attitude undercuts a view of science as a component of culture and a way to understand the world. Ideas are the currency of my colleagues in the humanities; as a biological scientist am I supposed to be concerned instead with human therapy?

Especially pernicious are the self-serving attitudes that good science costs large amounts of money and that the quality of scientists—and science departments—can be judged by the funds they raise. Our history provides so little support for such views that to accept them is to claim that the basic conditions for scientific progress have changed in the past few decades, recently enough to forestall historical perspective.

Just what makes a project expensive? Equipment, unless it has a very short useful life, costs little. Similarly, supplies are rarely a major item in the overall research budget. What really uses money and generates that prized overhead are people—salaries, graduate assistantships and so forth. Thus equating good science with expensive science declares that science done with lots of technicians is meritorious, whereas science where investigators use their own hands is mediocre. What a peculiar criterion!


The attitude that expense measures quality has a still worse side: It tends to reward the routine, the data-intensive, the applied and developmental projects; and it discourages risk-taking, creativity and shifts of direction. One hires young people in areas that are "hot," which means areas into which funds are copiously flowing and that are or will soon become overpopulated. One then demands such continuity of funding and productivity that the people can't change direction when the area is mined out. One then hires other people in other hot areas. If institutional growth is sufficiently rapid, passé biologists needn't be put to pasture—they're simply diluted out. (If growth is slow, denying tenure achieves the same end.) The system encourages investigators to use their graduate students as thinly disguised technicians—how else can they fit into highly focused grants and help maintain the lab's productivity?

Academically correct biology damages mostly by displacement. The multidimensionality of biological science, the diversity of elements that should matter for academic success, the idea of science as more than a compendium of facts—all are severely compromised. For a university, dependence on health-driven funding for biology adds one more element to that well-established reflex reaction by which it lets the relative availability of outside money determine its course. In particular, it subverts the historically proper and useful role of universities as institutions in which the creation of knowledge is insulated from cries for immediately tangible yield.

Of all the uncertainties about the future the most uncertain must be the trajectory of scientific progress. What then should a university do? Both its undeniable educational mission and that uncertainty argue for scientific diversity, with only the self-evident biases toward integrity and creativity. Lest the prescription sound unacceptably idealistic, I offer the following defense (for which I claim no novelty). As we try to offset the impact of our unprecedented population on the earth and to deal with the results of our own technology, acute problems will inevitably arise. Solutions to such problems will require mobilization of our community of scientists, and the chance of success will depend on the vitality and diversity of that community as it exists when we face such a problem. Our difficulty anticipating such problems—due both to the limitations of our present science and to the characteristics of our political systems—add importance to the task of maintaining that scientific community. We are, if nothing else, a disaster-insurance policy or peacetime army. As our society currently works, universities must take the lead in assuring the quality of that community. Other social institutions can only assist.

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