How should we do science?

It would be hard to get through the education system in any English-speaking country and not, at some point, read “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, which contains the following passage:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

There is no meaning in the world except what we bring to it, no help except what we give each other. A lot of what we bring to it really sucks, especially on the supra-human scale of institutions (tribes, armies, governments, religions, nations, faculty meetings, etc). It is organizing at these scales that has made humanity able do what it has done, but the fact is that for almost everyone and for almost our entire history our lives have been ruled by the cruelty and threats of violence mediated by institutions.

The reason I bring this up is that, if anything matters, how we treat other people should matter. This is a truth that everyone probably agrees with, but it is often forgotten because of the spooky way institutions are able to seduce our imaginations—the plausible belief that there is a “greater good” that justifies subsuming humans to institutional interests. At one end of this argument is Spock/Jesus-style self sacrifice, a myth so engrained that it has for most of history been successfully channelled into the belief that everyone should be willing to die to protect the interests of their nation state. At the other end are the various genocides of deranged (but internally rational) political movements. I am not saying all collective action or sacrifice is wrong, obviously, just that it is very weird to assume it to be right or good.

Economic institutions, on the other hand, are just as powerful but perhaps less visible in our day to day lives (no flags?). In the 20th Century, most of the developed world realized that although economic growth through capitalism is a great way for a lot of people to get a lot of stuff, left unfettered it is absolutely barbaric (probably why sociopaths are so drawn to its heart). Even the United States had a streak of resistance to it pre-war, though Americans have remained–far more than its peer nations–reflexively enamoured of capitalism’s institutional principles, even as we ride these principles down the ranks of every quality of life metric, and even among many of those who are least served by them.

This is why, I think, Americans in particular are easily swayed by specious arguments about scientific research that involve “optimization” and “autonomy” (freedom from regulation) for managers and institutions, and how we can give the most “efficient returns to our investors” (taxpayers). Reducing the scientific research enterprise to factory-style knowledge production allows us to bring to bear a lot of familiar and convenient metaphors and analogies that remind us of things the US used to be good at and a time when the US seemed like the most promising place in the world, at least for some people.

The focus of the blog for a while has been (and will continue to be) mainly about rethinking the models and metaphors we use to talk about what a useful, sustainable and dynamic biomedical research system might look like. And, honestly, I think we mostly have one. Its clearest handicap now is flat funding, which is not likely to change. However, some of its worst features were created by unregulated growth in the presence of surplus funding. We need new principles to guide us, and we have to have them in mind when we discuss what policies we want. If every policy argument reverts to knowledge production efficiency argument, attempts to return to the kind of growth that got us where we are now, or other lazily applied market capitalism analogies, we will not solve any of the issues we face with regard to labor, training, publishing, funding, assessment, and, yes, research quality.

Don’t worry: Science will happen no matter what, but we should decide how. The first principle I nominate: let us be true to one another. Which will bring us to my next post: “Why did we decide bullshit is ok?”

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