Science is not a corporate ladder

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)

(Photo: M.F. Saunders)

© Manu Saunders 2011

11 thoughts on “Science is not a corporate ladder

  1. cambridgechris June 30, 2011 / 3:32 AM

    I couldn’t agree with you more – the commercialisation of Science is an idiotic idea!

    But take heart that there are a lot of good guys out there, if you’re working in a good field with lots of connections and friendly faces it is possible to rise above the ‘quantity not quality’ ethos of the grant bodies. In my experience at least.


    • manuelinor June 30, 2011 / 9:51 AM

      Thank you Chris! It is heartening to know that not everyone sees the future of science as clad in gold.
      I had a look at your blog – I will enjoy reading more of it in future!


  2. Kevin Faulkner July 3, 2011 / 7:31 PM

    Sorry to have to inform you but your quotation is not by Sir Thomas Browne, the word ‘science’ not current in 17th century. Where did you find your misquote please?


    • manuelinor July 3, 2011 / 10:15 PM

      Hi Kevin. Thanks for reading. The quote is printed as this in Ingle’s 1958 edn of Principles of Research in Biology and Medicine…it is also on many, many internet sites (some possibly dubious!) and various other books of quotations that I have come across in the past.
      The word science was definitely known in that period, being derived from the latin scientia, but because of the latin meaning (knowledge) it was used more as a general term to describe the collective knowledge on a particular topic, rather than how we use it today. The so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century must have made some use of the word too!
      I guess, like all our ‘quotes’ from historical figures, we can never be truly certain of exactly what was originally said (unless a print copy survives), and of course multiple interpretations of anything abound – but hopefully the premise of what the author wanted to say still crosses the boundaries that language or linguistics can’t.
      Thanks again,


  3. Kevin Faulkner July 4, 2011 / 8:33 PM

    Well in all of my 15 years study of Browne I have never encountered it !

    But I am beginning to realise that correcting misquotes and misattributations is an utterly Quixotic exercise, the net being like a game of Chinese whispers. It would useful to see if anyone states the actual source in Browne’s writings of this statement but i doubt it will ever be found !

    I may as well begin a new quote and attribute it to Browne, let’s see if this one catches on.

    The philosophy of commercial interests is but a poor ragged beggar at the altar of learning -Sir Thomas Browne

    Madeleine L’Engle’s mistake is detected and refuted here-

    As there are many more American users of the internet than British and no doubt it seems to lend credence and authority to one’s quote to attribute it to Sir Thomas Browne i guess i will have to be resigned to such mistakes, but the whole tone and notion of science being equated with money-making is remote from Browne’s era and thinking, it was far too early to be thinking about making a buck out of Science in the 17th century or even to make the blasphemous analogy of science as a temple, something Browne would never have done !

    I have a 1658 edition of Browne’s encyclopaedia and his 2 discourses of 1658 and although I am well-acquainted with the text I will let you know if I ever come across anything remotely like your attributed quotation !


  4. Kevin Faulkner July 4, 2011 / 8:51 PM

    A quick usage of the search engine upon the University of Chicago site devoted to Browne’s collected writings soon reveals that Browne did not employ the word science in his writings.

    However there is the one recorded usage of his neologism and first usage of the word ‘scientifical’ in P.E. Book 1 chapter 7 ‘On authority’.

    also proceeding from setled Principles, therein is expected a satisfaction from scientifical progressions, and such as beget a sure rational belief. …

    Hope this of interest to you !


    • manuelinor July 5, 2011 / 9:28 AM

      Thanks for the information…there are a lot of misquotes out there, we certainly do love a good chinese whisper!! I remember years ago when I started reading a bit of Aristotle (different translations…I am by no means a scholar of ancient greek!!) and began playing spot the difference – if we all had the time to learn old languages and study the very first original works of every quoted ancient, we’d find out there’s a lot of erroneous information out there! Just look at the climate change debacle – that will be one for the future.

      I looked up Ingle’s quote again – he just says “Sir Thomas Browne’s classic dictum…” But there are a few Sir Thomas Brownes, I gather, and one apparently less famous one was around in the 19th century. So maybe it was this Browne who should be credited, and it was all a case of mistaken identity?
      I’ve edited the quote on my page so I don’t add fuel to the fire!

      I love that we are having this conversation about misquoting and misrepresentation of other’s work, and specifically a ‘science’ quote, at the bottom of a post about the misrepresentation of science and its elements…very fitting!!


  5. Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. July 5, 2011 / 11:57 PM

    Great article! The abuse of science is not only in the science per se — but in its application in regulatory agencies who purport t use science in their decisions. This has been my experience watch-dogging EPA and state environmental protection agencies for decades. This occurs in the number and placement of monitors and chemicals to be analyzed, in exposure and risk assessments, in engineering analyses (e.g. emission estimates), and so forth. All of these science based tools have enormous wiggle room and the regulated industries play an insiders game to see that things go their way. The culture at these agencies is not what is valid but what is “reasonable.” And what is reasonable is largely a political issue.


    • manuelinor July 6, 2011 / 10:27 AM

      Very true. I heard of a fellow here in Australia who started his own consulting business – the first job he got was to do an assessment on a parcel of land for a mining company. His initial report came back with “the Truth”, a number of vulnerable species present etc. He was told to make the report more favourable or he wouldn’t get paid and future clients would be turned away. A little bit like Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy!
      Education, media representation and politics are huge influences – see The Laws of Nature and What’s Science Mummy?


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