Whoa, wait a minute. You’re going to spill coffee all over your lab coat, but hear me out. Yes, I know that the White House just released a budget that puts America’s science profile roughly on par with Paraguay – unless you are part of the military or own a construction company along the Mexican border. But you see, that is exactly the point.
It’s important to realize that there is a significant degree of freedom in finding yourself in the middle of an argument that you know you simply cannot win. I often find myself embroiled in one such repeating discussion with some of my students. I have been teaching about media for almost 40 years, stretching from helping them set up a darkroom to develop 35mm film to current discussions about smartphones that seem permanently welded to their hands. It is that bit of technology that lies at the center of an intractable argument. Despite the fact that my classes are about technology, the students in my classrooms are permitted the use of nothing more sophisticated than paper and a suitable, non-internet-connected marking implement.
Occasionally, a student will assert that such technology prohibition is not fair, by which they actually mean “stupid, old-fashioned, and mean.” I point them to the rather sizable body of research that indicates that students attempting to multitask during class invariably retain less course content, perform more poorly on test and quizzes, and distract their fellow students. To which they respond, “Well, I don’t believe that.” But, because I am the teacher, the prohibition stands. I do not believe for a moment that I have won the argument, that I have changed their minds. As in most cases, their belief will trump any data that contradicts that belief.
And that is why one has to think twice about the value of employing data-based science arguments with members of the current administration. Think about it: the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t believe that the environment really needs all that much protection. He believes that “clean coal” is not an oxymoron. The new head of the Federal Communications Commission apparently believes that “net neutrality” defines the no parking zone around the tennis courts at his country club. And the Oval Office, despite the total disagreement of the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, the Congressional Budget Office, and the American Association of Retired People and a growing list of Republicans, still believes that the ill-defined Donald-care is necessary to roll back the equally ill-defined predations of the demonized Affordable Care Act. These are the strongly held beliefs of people in positions of power. Arguing data with them is as futile as my fruitless attempts to convince my smartphone-addicted students that the world will be unaffected and they will be better informed if they go off the grid for 75 minutes.
So, in the current climate, what do you do to make American science smart again? Well, there are at least a couple of options. You can attempt to confront the irrational triumph of belief over data by complaining to everyone within earshot about the administration. I have friends who, for the last eight years, were able to blame everything – including the number of handicapped parking spaces at McDonald’s and the pace of lines at airports and supermarkets – on Obamacare. So far as I could tell, their complaints never changed the speed at which they got their Big Mac, their carry-on stashed above their seat, or their produce bagged. They just made others around them uncomfortable.
There is a better way. But we have to look over our shoulders to find it. So hop into the Wayback Machine, Sherman, and set the date for April 15, 1874.
“Gosh, Mr. Peabody, who are those guys with the paintbrushes?”
“We call them impressionists, Sherman. Though until this date, they were better known as failures.”
Well, you get the idea. In the 1870s, any artist who was anybody had to display their work in the Salon de Paris. The problem for one hardy crew of renegades – including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro – was that the powerful group of critics who controlled acceptance to the salon did not believe in the painting style that would come to be called impressionism. Those few impressionist paintings that had previously been accepted by the salon were hung high on the walls out of sight, in a remote room the size of a closet, or were soon removed altogether.
It eventually became obvious to our merry band of paint slingers that it was pointless to confront the current beliefs of the powerful. So, on April 15, 1874, they opened their own competing exhibition. The reviews were mixed. But there were reviews. The Co-operative Company of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., as they called themselves, had slipped out from under the thumb of the gatekeepers of the Salon de Paris. They sold a few paintings at the exhibition, and some of the artists went on to enjoy productive careers during their lifetime. But I doubt that even the most optimistic among them could have predicted the joy-ride that the future had in store. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "David and Goliath," estimates that if the 200 paintings displayed at that first renegade exhibition were to be sold in the current market, one would need somewhere around a billion dollars to acquire them.
So, what can we take away from our little jaunt in the Wayback Machine? Particularly when we think about the government and its relationship to science?
First, we simply need to accept the fact that the “Science Salon” currently in power in Washington will do nothing to advance the cause of scientific research. The appointed heads of the government agencies designed to oversee and advocate for science and technology are neither scientists nor technologists. Since they neither understand nor believe in the scientific method, the results of scientific research becomes, for them, flexible talking points in policy discussions. Hence, evolution, a scientifically demonstrable fact, and creationism, a set of specific Judeo-Christian theological concepts, become different – but essentially parallel – “beliefs” that can be debated.
In the minds of this new Washington Science Salon, many other long established clusters of scientific fact can become alternative beliefs that are up for grabs. In 1874, the impressionists decided that they could not be true to their art and continue to bend their work to the arbitrary dictates of the salon. So they took their game elsewhere. If the current Science Salon makes it impossible for scientists to be true to their art, perhaps it is time for the scientific community to take their game elsewhere.
I do not make that suggestion lightly. I am well aware that the power the current Washington Science Salon holds over the community of research scientists is drawn from the same dual sources as the Salon de Paris: fame and fortune. Whose work gets published? Whose grant gets funded? To a huge degree, the professional success of research scientists depends upon the wishes and beliefs of the Washington Science Salon.
So where would science go if it were to take its game elsewhere? Well, obviously it needs to find a locus that has deep pockets and an interest in scientific research, which sounds a lot like Silicon Valley to me. I know, I know. The idea of panhandling to the likes of Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple kind of creeps me out as well. But then I think, creepy as compared to what? To ensure full disclosure, I need to state that I see the issue from a campus perspective.
I have always worked in a university. For me, it is a family tradition. Counting my father and two uncles who spent much of their lives in college classrooms, the family has racked up more than a century in front of students. Add in my sister who advised university students for 30 or so years, and we may push 150 years in a campus environment. So that is my perspective, and when it comes to the relationship between the university and the Washington Science Salon, it is a perspective with which I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable.
Back in January of 1961, President Eisenhower warned of the “military industrial complex,” an intertwining of military and business interests that could come to compromise or overshadow the needs of and benefits to the general population. I doubt he would be pleased with how poorly we heeded his warning. The lines between the government, the military, business, and the university are becoming faint enough to be nonexistent. And not surprisingly, it is money that blurs the lines.
The brightest stars in the academic firmament these days tend not to be those asking the most interesting questions or providing the most tantalizing answers. Rather, they are those individuals or teams who can craft the grant proposals that fit most neatly into the categories that funding agencies – most often member agencies of the various Washington Science Salons – wish to encourage. To complete the analogy, they are the artists who routinely have their works accepted by the Salon de Paris. They paint what they are supposed to paint; they think what they are supposed to think.
Maybe it has always been so. Maybe that was what spooked President Eisenhower in the midst of the last century. I would like to believe that this was not always the case, that once universities were the places where the best and brightest followed the most creative twists of curious minds. But if it were once so, sadly, it is no longer. Grantsmanship has turned us into salesmanship. The salons are the markets, and the product for sale is our intellect.
Once we accept that sad fact, turning our back on the Washington Science Salon doesn’t seem quite so bizarre. Surely our universities still have more in common with the curiosity that drives the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley than we have with the beliefs of the conservative political fundamentalists who control – at least for the next few years – the handouts of the Washington Science Salon. Why not pitch genuinely motivated “pure science” proposals to the Silicon Valley Salon?
Some of them already have the mechanism in place. Sure, they are in it for the money, but using the current funding models, so are the universities. Silicon Valley at least seems to realize that the market is driven by innovation, and that you innovate by turning the unfettered creative, intellectual exploration of wide-ranging ideas into something that may become products and processes people want. And furthermore, why do we need to limit ourselves to an alternative salon run by companies, even if those companies are larger and richer than most nations? We are a nation “of the people” aren’t we? How about crowdsourcing for science?
These are radical changes. Changes we would never have seriously considered had the Trump administration not decided to gut American science by creating an environment that is toxic to academic freedom. These are changes that most universities would – and will – initially resist since most large universities have patterned their research and fiscal practices and policies to stay in lockstep with the big funding salons in Washington. You do not bite the salon that feeds you. But what do you do when the salon declares that not only do you need to study what the salon decrees you need to study, but now you also need to present and publish only the answers that the Washington Science Salon believes to be true?
To break the chains of exclusivity currently enjoyed by the Washington Funding Salons and their slightly-less-dominant-but-allied corporate kin, universities would have to devise new models and processes designed to support relatively unfettered research. But surely, we can muster the will to do that. Just how deep does our institutional avarice and intellectual cowardice really run? Hopefully not that deep.
Trump seems determined to throw science under the bus and tell the eggheads, “You’re fired!” Certainly, we need to resist those appointments and budget cuts through the traditional routes of political activism. But the reality is that despite those efforts, there seems to be some free fall in the future. The least we can do is give some serious consideration as to how and where we choose to land.