Scientific Research in the Era of Managers


This article examines the introduction of business and marketplace aims and practices in Scientific Research. On one hand, such practices are examined as to how relevant they are with Scientific methodology, and in particular with assessment of Research proposals and administration of Research projects. Apart from methodology, this paper also examines the introduction of marketplace aims, and in particular the aim of profit. Several cases and studies are reviewed, in order to illustrate the effects of profit-driven Universities and Research Institutes in the quality of Research outcomes, as well as to the effects on Society as a whole.

 

1. Aim and Scope

 

The present article intends to examine the application of free-market and business practices in Scientific Research. The perspective is that of a Researcher, which moreover, is the author’s status. The particularity of Scientific Research is related to the relatively inflexible way with which it is, or should be, carried out; its object is the natural world, whose function is very precise, and totally independent of the researcher’s desires, convictions and the general social realities. According to Scientific methodology, the Scientist/Researcher has a duty to observe Nature objectively and submit to his observations. These observations do no other than tell us how Nature works; any subsequent steps are forced to take them into strict consideration, and any Research outcome has to obey them. Planning of observations by the Researcher, is simply not conceivable within this methodological context.
We have therefore described very briefly the limits within which Scientific Research, basic or applied, may operate.
On the other hand we have the world of markets, whose operation has varied significantly through time and space. This operation depends on technical, geographical and political considerations, prevalent ideologies, or even social circumstances and religion. It is also closely related to the political system of each society. Thus, numerous politico-economic systems of the past, like feudalism and then mercantilism, have been supervened by capitalism or socialism in modern history. Even those two systems have been applied in various flavors, ranging from Keynesian to neoliberal capitalism, and from social democracy to communism, thus reflecting the flexibility of the operation of markets.

Thus there is a marked contradistinction between the rigid methodology of Scientific Research and the varying modus operandi of markets.

We will examine Research within free-market practices for no other reason than this: capitalism is the ruling economic model today. Obviously for any point of criticism anyone could cite e.g., the shortcomings of real socialism. Though this criticism may be correct, it remains irrelevant in the present context, because as we said, the aim of this article is not a comparative study of economic systems, but the examination of the dominant and most relevant system today, capitalism. In any case, the author does not believe that the choice of socio-economic model is disjunctively "capitalism or communism", but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this text.

 

 

2. Introduction

 

Quite often, Research is considered as just another economic activity. In the sense of resources expenditures (social, material, energy resources) for the production of a result (knowledge) through the recruitment of personnel (Scientists, Tecnhicians), this we could say may be the case. The problem, however, arises when Research is considered as just another business or commercial activity, and when knowledge is considered as just another commodity, like iron ore or tobacco.

About a century ago, Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen (1918) analyzed the developments in the USA of the early 20th century, based on his academic experience acquired at Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, Chicago, Stanford and Missouri-Columbia Universities. In his essay "The Higher Learning in America: a Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men", he describes the invasion of businessmen and politicians in the governing boards of Universities and the mentality-shift from the search of knowledge to its transaction.

Acknowledging an absurdity, he writes that "Plato’s classic scheme of folly, which would have the philosophers take over the management of affairs, has been turned on its head; the men of affairs have taken over the direction of the pursuit of knowledge." He considers that, as businessmen are inadequate in their education for Scientific Research, Researchers are equally inadequate in their education for business. He points out that business administration requires advertising-type investments (impressive buildings, presence in the mass media etc) that could be communicatorilly exploited to increase the Institutions’ prestige, overlooking operating costs. Indeed, production of knowledge, is by no means an impressive process per se to the unskilled eye, and can do little for the "prestige" of the Institution. He also points out that, in this environment, only the Scientists who are most apt to the arts of enterprise, public relations and politics get to climb up the administrative hierarchy. The ones faithfully devoted to their stated function, i.e. the search of knowledge, are punished with limited access to the decision-making process and lower wages. The most distinguished Scientists constitute, by business standards, a necessary evil: "necessary" for the prestige they bring to their hosting Institute, "evil" because they disagree on principle with the business models of conducting Research. They will therefore, have to be stiflingly controlled not to stray from the sovereign business logic.

According to Veblen, the process of the quest for superior knowledge is by nature incompatible with that of the quest for profit, rendering their efficient coexistence in the same person or in the same Institution at least problematic: in the end the one will have to displace, or rather devour, the other. This opinion is not philosophical based on first principles, but empirical, based on facts and observations of everyday academic life. We have to note that when these views were expressed, the markets operated in a social context where certain other institutions, like community, country, church or family bared an important weight in policy-making processes. Right or wrong, many decisions took those considerations into account, sometimes counterbalancing pure capitalist doctrine.

Today, the erosion of many other institutions has led to dramatic changes in everyday life, on a global level. Scientific Research could not be left impervious to those changes, and these observations are even more relevant today. Herein, we will attempt to portray the current realities in the field of modern Research, which include the happenings in Universities, Research Centres and the Industry. We will also try to sketch out the paradigm shift from knowledge as an ideal, or as a stepping stone to personal and social betterment, to its conception as a commodity to be produced, bargained and traded for profit in the marketplace.
One may consider such a paradigm shift as legitimate and reasonable. However, no matter how simple a proposition may appear at first sight, one must take the time to follow it to its logical conclusions before fully evaluating its desirability and legitimacy. When Euclid arbitrarily formulated his "fifth postulate" concerning parallelism, he not knowingly set the foundation for Euclidean geometry. It took, however, whole armies of mathematicians to fully work out all its logical consequences until this very day. He himself, probably could not have imagined how this single arbitrary postulate would give rise to whole branches of Mathematics, and how it would prevent the development of non-Euclidean geometries for many centuries.

Formulating arbitrary postulates is dangerously easy, while following their logical consequences is often hard, albeit important. This is why people often prefer the former to the latter. Herein we will attempt to follow the consequences of the "profit postulate", i.e. the tenet that knowledge is a commodity, and that its ownership, transmission and exploitation should aim to maximize profits.

 

3. Public Funding of Research Proposals on a Competitive Basis

 

What mainly determines the direction in which Research moves, or will move, is obviously the direction of the available resources. It is an obvious triviality to state that Research without resources is impossible, particularly so in the realm of Natural Sciences.

Today, Research is conducted by Public Academic and Research Institutions (PuARI), by Private such Institutions (PrARI) and by the Private Sector (i.e. Industry). Generally speaking, the PuARI receive regular subsidies from the state to cover their fixed expenses (wages, maintenance etc). Tuition fees or other types of income are possible and vary between countries. PrARI’s are financed from their own resources (student tuition fees, donations, patent royalties etc). Finally, the Industry profits from the commercial exploitation of its products, through their sale (goods or services) and by exploitation of patent licenses. However, a funding source common to all these three categories of Institutions, are the subsidies issued on a competitive basis by states or supranational organizations (e.g. the EU) for the support of Scientifi

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