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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.

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