Saving Bush

Over at the Science of Science Policy discussion group, there was a brief flurry regarding Dan Sarewitz’s article in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science.” Here is what I posted in that discussion:

Militaristic research directors demanding disciplined obedience don’t appear to have done any better in advancing science than managerial ones fussing over merit and efficiency. Sincere research directors give impassioned talks about their sincerity, but that too isn’t of much help. Climate science is fully aligned with political goals–“post-normal” science and all–and so spins data and gins up models that produce the desired pronouncements in support of policy demands. Clinical research is well aligned with corporate interests, but John Ioannidis argues there’s little in the findings that’s right–or that’s useful even when right. We appear to have a well funded exercise in quantitative confirmation biases and halo effects.

If there’s a big problem with institutional science, perhaps it is the presence of institutions. Perhaps at a given size, or with a given mindset, an institution passes into “guardian” mode and is willing to “deceive for the sake of the task” to flatter power, to enhance reputation rather than to “dissent for the sake of the task” (as Jane Jacobs has it) and chase down something that is obscure, untrendy, conflicting with consensus.

For his part, Bush was concerned with how to introduce significant change into an established order. His idea was to expand the frontiers of science so that in combination with other areas and modes of research, people might create new, useful initiatives that an established order would not likely propose on its own. The military establishment doesn’t tend to create radical changes in military science. The medical establishment does not propose research that renders the experience sets of leading medical managers mostly obsolete. The chamber of commerce does not propose research that puts top companies at risk for loss of business.

One might call this the “Strictly Ballroom” problem. As Clark Kerr put it, in describing university innovation–“change comes from the outside.” A faculty senate is good at rejecting what it doesn’t want, but not so good at proposing what ought to be done but which it has little experience with. Most established orders have their version of a faculty senate. It might be “Technology Readiness Levels” or standards or “industry roadmaps” or “best practices” or senior folks advising junior ones on how to manage their careers for success (as in Sagan’s “Contact”)–all well formed, reasoned, full of merit. Bush’s concern was where government might position change-enabling research on the “outside” of institutional interests, while allowing that there were fine and good and necessary things to be done to work out the details of whatever it is that an established order has adopted.

I used to arrange “technology and talent” tours to non-university folks interested in collaborating with university scientists and engineers. We would schedule four or five labs for a visit, based on the interest of the visitors. The most interesting tour I set up involved an officer in Army intelligence. “What do you want to see?” I asked. “If I tell you, then I won’t see what I want to see–which is what I can’t specify,” he replied. So we visited fringe labs doing cool things outside the mainstream. His debrief? Something to the effect of “That was great–now I know we are years out of date in our thinking about what’s possible.”

For more, see “Vannevar Bush’s Seductive Lie.”

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