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MACROSCOPE

Academically Correct Biological Science

Steven Vogel

Trajectories

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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