i’m all about money these days

The London Review of Books has an interesting article about the development of profit in science (biomedical science in particular). It’s by Steven Shapin, who studies the history of science. Shapin tracks the changes in the desire for monetary gain in Science. He begin,

Until fairly recently, you did not choose a scientific career with the idea of getting rich. After the end of World War Two, American academic scientists started out on about $2000 a year – the rough equivalent of $17,000 these days – while few full professors at the peak of their careers commanded as much as $10,000. The American scientist, a writer in Science magazine observed in 1953,

is not properly concerned with hours of work, wages, fame or fortune. For him an adequate salary is one that provides decent living without frills or furbelows. No true scientist wants more, for possessions distract him from doing his beloved work. He is content with an Austin instead of a Packard; with a table model TV set instead of a console; with factory rather than tailor-made suits. . . . To boil it down, he is primarily interested in what he can do for science, not in what science can do for him.

Around the same time, a US senator asked Karl Compton, a physicist and president of MIT: ‘Do you believe this is a correct statement, that probably of all the professions in the world, the scientist is least interested in monetary gain?’ Compton agreed: ‘I don’t know of any other group that has less interest in monetary gain.’

Now the first thing that came to my mind was, “well, how has the class background of scientists changed since 1953?”

I mean, it could simply be that people didn’t actually need the money. So science was a status game they could engage in where it was simply assumed that most had wealth. Shapin then goes on to discuss what it means for science that scientists seem to be increasingly interested in material rewards and less interested in science sui generis. He conclusdes,

If Craig Venter is the iconic scientist of the early 21st century, what conception of science does he embody? Belligerent, innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial, he is an emblem of the radical changes in American scientific life, and especially in the lives of biomedical scientists, over the past thirty years or so. The intense relationship between biomedical science and capital is substantially new, and so is the texture of much scientific practice in the area, including the pace of work, the funds required to do the work, the instrumental production and processing of inconceivably large amounts of scientific information, and the institutional configurations in which biomedical science now happens. At the same time, Venter expresses sentiments about science that could scarcely be more traditional, even romantic. A ruggedly freebooting individualist, contemptuous of authority and of bureaucracy, he revives an old conception of scientific independence and integrity in an age when the bureaucracies that allegedly block the advance of science are as much academic and non-profit as they are commercial. When academic bureaucracies are said to protect intellectual orthodoxies, when cumbersome and politicised government bureaucracies harbour cults of personality, and when corporate bureaucracies build on business models that stultify both science and commercial growth, the only person you can trust is an edgy hybrid of self-confessed ‘bad boy’ and self-advertised humanitarian who thinks he has a spoon long enough to sup with all the institutional devils and sacrifice his integrity to none. The imaginative development of new institutional forms appropriate to the new science, the new economy, and a newly emerging moral order is made to depend on a unique individual. Later this year, when ‘boot up’ inevitably happens, he will – according to some conceptions of the thing – have created life. If you trust Craig Venter, he will, like his predecessor in the life-creating business, see that it is good.

And so we’re left to believe that the more things change the more they stay the same. Yet the individual story of Craig Venter seems to sell this story short. There is little reflection upon the ways in which “selling science to the highest bidder” affect what kind of scientific news gets reported. I’d be interested in how this story might lead to an opening up of science (a transformation of the class distribution of scientists) while at the same time affecting the practice itself. Perhaps I should read more science studies. Then again, I need to get my own work done.

I wonder if sociologists hold any kind of patents on their ideas? Folks have trademarked terms. “Deliberative Polling” for one. Which strikes me as odd. Then again, maybe I could trademark “class” or “race” or “gender”. Then I too could make lots of money like Mr. Venter… I wonder if that would make sociology a better discipline? Both my money and also forcing people to come up with new terms/ideas…

One thought on “i’m all about money these days”

  1. Way back in the 1930s Lazarsfeld did a lot of applied research but didn’t patent any of it. interestingly, his sometime research partner, Frank Stanton (PhD, Ohio State), later did get rich as the head of CBS but through climbing the corporate ladder, not IP rents


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