Quite frankly, I believe that science and research now have several very difficult large problems. The thousands of doctoral scientists around the world who are working in universities generally either are not very aware of these serious issues, or feel helpless to challenge the status quo. Do I believe that the widespread estrangement of the public from science and research is the biggest problem? No I don’t! Is the fact that there never seems to be enough money to support research the biggest problem? Not in my opinion! Do I consider that the biggest problem is the disastrous consequences that good scientific research has had for Fukushima, recombinant agricultural crops, modern weapons systems, etc.? No I don’t! My personal opinion is that the number one biggest problem for science today is the commercialization of research within universities. This change in the direction of scientific investigations produces bad consequences for the public, including you and me. What has caused this large change to develop? What are its effects for scientific research?
The many research scientists and engineers working in industrial laboratories always have worked knowingly within the context of trying to increase the commercial profits of their employer. Any given study in industrial labs can be stopped abruptly for business reasons, as well as because the research experiments are not progressing in a satisfactory manner. This industrial system seems to have worked out quite well in most cases. However, until recently, basic research by scientists working in academia has not been directly involved with business profits. The new commercialization of scientific research in universities markedly changes this traditional situation.
Basic scientists formerly obtained money from government research support programs in order to be able to pay the costs of conducting experimental studies within universities. Via commercialization, things now have switched around so that university science faculty seek research grant awards to enable their employer to gather increased income and profits; scientific research is only the means to this mercenary end. In other words, the current aim is simply to get as much money as possible, thereby raising profits for the employing university. Many science faculty become quite dismayed when they come to realize that the real goal is the money, not the research itself.
Different universities and specialty schools now commonly are compared and ranked on the basis of their annual total research grant awards. This vigorous lust for research grants has become the major reason why doctoral scientists are hired as faculty in academia. The professional reputation of a faculty researcher conducting experimental studies in any branch of science now is mainly determined by the total amount of dollars in their research grant awards; such features as innovation, significance, difficulty, and quality in their research findings is of distant importance. Similarly, the quality of their teaching activities now is strictly of secondary concern. The entire nature of being a faculty scientist has changed.
Scientific research in academia thus has been turned into just another business activity. Faculty scientists now are fully part of this new commercialized system where universities openly grasp for increased profits. Many universities try to explain their shift into seeking profits from research grant awards as a necessary response to declining alumni donations, shrinking endowments, decreasing enrollments, increasing regulations and administrative expenditures, and, the inflating costs for everything. They can no longer utilize their traditional practice of simply charging students more and more for tuition each year, but it is easy to hide the new commercialization of their science faculty. The accompanying negative consequences of this situation are either denied or ignored by these same universities.
Commercialization affects all aspects of being a faculty researcher. Any academic research scientist working to find the cause or a cure for some disease now almost always is looking around simultaneously to identify which commercial companies will be interested in developing and marketing this wonderful new knowledge. Those faculty researchers in materials science who are investigating a new type of coating that can reduce friction by several hundred-fold now almost always are simultaneously wondering if it would be better to first contact an established firm selling coatings, or to form a new start-up firm, before they publish anything. Academic institutions generally have dedicated offices for aiding their faculty scientists to acquire patents and participate in commercial ventures jointly with industrial partners. In all these cases, the possibilities for later profit have become the chief driver, if not the actual purpose, for the investigational efforts by faculty scientists.
Although the traditional aim of basic scientific research was to find new knowledge and discover what is true, the search for truth now seems idealistic and is disappearing from view. For pure basic science, which seeks new knowledge for its own sake, there usually had been very little of looking to acquire profits from a research discovery; if the new basic knowledge later helps the public, then so much the better, but this was not the aim of the experimentation. Increased commercialization now has spread everywhere throughout basic research. In turn, this modern re-direction of research efforts strongly encourages applied research and equally strongly de-emphasizes basic research.
What are the main consequences of this ongoing commercialism in academic science? The chief effect is that the ever-increasing importance of profits causes the down-sizing of basic research. Indeed, to a growing extent, both research investigations in universities and the enthusiasm of the granting agencies now are directed towards applied research and engineering rather than to basic studies. Why is it considered horrible if basic investigations are disfavored and diminishing? The reason is that almost all of the wonderful new high technology devices and other features that characterize modern life have arisen by the work of applied scientists and engineers upon the preceding discoveries by basic researchers. Basic science is the necessary precursor to later studies and developments by applied scientists and engineers. If basic research decreases its production of new findings, there will inevitably follow a slowing of new and improved products and processes; that will have negative effects upon everyone.
Yet other bad effects of the commercialization of university science include: (1) creativity, formation of new concepts, and curiosity are decreased inside the research endeavor; (2) the conduct of experimental studies are made more mechanical, and more studies are channeled towards large groups where each individual scientist necessarily becomes a doctoral technician, rather than an independent thinker and creative doer; and, (3) as individual activities and creativity in basic science are increasingly smothered, so is the traditional main source being lessened for new thoughts, unconventional ideas, new concepts, and perception of unexpected interrelationships. The new chief aim of acquiring financial profits (i.e., as research grants) further subverts the traditional conduct of scientific research in academia by exposing it to all the greed, cheating, and underhanded actions that are sadly characteristic of the dynamics of money in too many modern businesses. All these effects from pervasive commercialization are having a very negative influence on the progress of science in the modern world.
There are many other important aspects of this subject, and all of these are very infrequently discussed. I will deal much further with commercialization and other modern problems for science and for research by university faculty within future postings.
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