Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Culture of Science"

September 11
Ralph Kuncl
"The Balkanization of Science"

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Ralph Kuncl, a neurologist, member of the Biology Department and BMC provost, began the conversation with some comments about "The Balkanization of Science." He described his sense of the culture of science as requiring both a "prepared mind" (prepared, that is, to recognize a pattern when it appears) and a willingness to engage in group work. He discussed the matter of intellectual property (both how hard it is to "own" an idea and the profit that can arise from doing so in this era of technology transfer), and the ways in which the potential marketablity of ideas can interrupt the traditional culture of sharing, as researchers become increasingly entrepreneurial. Earlier conventions and moral obligations to actively disseminate research, and so generate its greatest use, have given way to material transfer agreements and legalistic obligations to confidentiality. The pace of science slows thereby, and the collegiality of science evaporates. When the marketability of "intellectual property" intersects with the "culture of sharing," ideas are held more closely, from an excess fear of competition and theft; in the pressure to be first, tools are shared less openly. Under the pressure of competition, the pace of science slows; a legalistic environment is created through the use of contractual agreements which protect against promiscuous sharing. During the discussion period, questions were raised regarding the relationship between the academy and industry (the strong tendencies to find commonality result in a diversified income, but also diversified pressures on product); the risks inherent in every strategic alliance; and what happens to academic freedom if one goes where the funding is.

Colleagues then asked about the possibility of telling the story differently, about what kind of role small colleges like Bryn Mawr might play in correcting this system, and about the preference for having research that is investigator-driven. There may be no novel ideas, but (with low levels of proof) there are certainly still patentable ones. Humanists, like scientists, find themselves in competition for scarce resources. Do we want to think of teaching as an outcome of research that is commodifiable? Do we want to think about capitalizing on pedagogical inventions? Would we be contributing (and do we want to contribute) thereby to the objectification to knowledge? Might we be more appreciative of applied work? Is our desire to avoid capitalizing on the knowledge we produce a false one? Should we grant space for less profitable activities, or create profits that we can all share, following communist rather than capitalist models? What alliances with local busnesses (via internships, etc.) do we want to make? Might there be mutual self interest, for instance, in leadership training @ the college?

Or (these questions arose in conversations among several of us after lunch ended) might there be an alternative economics for conceptualizing the kind of work we do? Might there be different conceptions of knowledge than those of ownership? Rather than producers of knowledge (for instance) might we think of ourselves as service providers? What IS the most empowering image available to us, for the kind of work we do? For the kind of work we would LIKE to be doing?

Those who participated in this initial conversation, as well as those who are just joining us now, are warmly invited to continue the discussion our on-line forum, and to join us next Wednesday for its continuation. Samantha Glazier will pick up the conversation with some comments on "Isolation, Persuasion and Conviction: Sustaining the Culture of Science." Sam will be talking about the various ways in which she is responding to her own socialization into the culture of science. She is a Keck Fellow in Chemistry who has been working w/ Sharon Burgmeyer to learn more about how and which metal compounds modify DNA.

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