Public conversations conducted in the peer-reviewed literature recently indicate that many of the eco/biological concepts and terminology developed over recent decades have become lost in a minefield of public misunderstanding and policy pandering – often to the detriment of the causes they were intended for.
Catchphrases or concepts developed specifically to raise awareness about a particular issue, such as the keystone, umbrella and flagship species concepts (see Barua 2011), have been overused or misused in the public domain for too long. Some scientists now believe these concepts and catchphrases, developed for beneficial environmental outcomes, have the potential to negatively affect their relevant causes. For example, recent comments highlight the over-emphasis of the “biodiversity” agenda, at the expense of recognising nature as a whole-earth ecosystem (Woodwell 2010); the mixed messages provided by recent studies apparently endorsing the biodiversity value of logged “degraded lands” – landscapes that were previously identified as biologically inhospitable in the literature (Didham 2011); and the potential for terminology from the field of restoration ecology to “create unrealistic expectations and perverse policy outcomes” (Hobbs et al. 2011).
To be fair, the science community is not solely to blame. Public misinterpretation of scientific concepts is fuelled mainly by scientifically illiterate journalists and limited general science education among the non-scientific public. These problems can be solved through changes to education curricula and social constructs, all of which are often beyond the realm of the scientist.
However, these comments raise the question: “Is Science being corporatised?” The answer appears to be “Yes”, with evidence shown partly from our own actions and partly from issues that are sometimes out of our control.
The corporatisation of universities and research in general is not new, and top-down management has been a part of these institutions for many years now. However, until now, Science itself should have been untouchable by the corporatisation model – like any other field of study, Science is a Subject, not an Object to be labelled and packaged at whim.
Unfortunately, we are now seeing exactly this sort of labelling occurring. Science is becoming less about recording and understanding the natural world, and more about bureaucracy, marketability and commercial gain. John James Stevenson commented in 1902 that “everything is dominated by an intense commercialism, which destroys men’s finer instincts and lowers the general moral tone of the community”. He was writing about the intellectual and social conditions of that time, but his comments could not be more relevant today.
Many experts have recently expressed doubt over the supportive nature of the current tenets of the science community – principles that promote aggressive competitiveness for credit and rankings and encourage the “publish or perish” phenomenon (Lawrence 2002; 2003); feed an unsustainable and oversupplied job market (Cyranoski et al. 2011); and, in some countries, still turn women away from pursing an academic career in science (Baker 2011).
It is also often lamented how recruitment to scientific fields is lacking from the younger generation. However, novices to the field (undergraduates and PhD students) can be discouraged by the pressure to produce cutting-edge research, publish prior to submitting a thesis, “market” themselves to the wider community (scientific and non-scientific) and show their worth at gaining grant applications – all while living on a below-minimum wage, faced with a grim career future, and dealing with colleagues who may “steal credit” for their work or seek to put the young novice “back in their box” of inexperience.
These characteristics correlate with the fact that so many scientists feel pressured to play the media game, to boost their chances at winning the constant fight for research money within universities and government research organisations. Success at this game often requires confining Science, which should be an open, transdisciplinary subject, into sexy catchphrases, icons or symbols. These symbols then fall victim to media spin, appearing in the public domain as commercially appealing snippets designed to grab attention and create drama, resulting in such examples as discussed above.
The scenario presented in this letter is more akin to a competitive corporate structure where the individual is required to protect his or her own speciality and commercial interests, rather than a community of skilled and knowledgeable experts working together to solve the world’s medical and environmental problems and inspire and educate non-scientists. Overall it implies that Science has indeed succumbed to corporatisation.
The origins of what we today call Science were in the simple desire to comprehend the natural world around us, not to use it as the foundations for a corporate structure. All scientific disciplines are in some way linked to the principles or components of the natural world, as are most non-scientific disciplines, yet this fact seems to be often forgotten. (See my previous post What’s Science Mummy?)
As Scientists, we have been trained for so long to try to falsify and disprove everything, perhaps this has contributed to the pessimism that some are now encountering within scientific domains (Patten & Smith-Patten 2011; Schroeder et al. 2011).
We do need to reconnect with nature and embrace the “hope” and inspired thinking that Swaisgood & Sheppard endorse (2010; 2011). Science has been a source of knowledge, joy, inspiration and literary brilliance for centuries – let us not now devalue it for commercial gain.
No one should approach the temple of Science with the soul of a money changer
– Sir Thomas Browne (source unknown – see comments below)
© Manu Saunders 2011