The Political Economy of Science
For most of its history, science was the preserve of the wealthy few. Newton, Darwin, Lyell – these were men who advanced mankind’s knowledge, but they could only do so because they could fall back on either personal or familial wealth, or had sources of income other than their research. But beginning in the late 19th century, science started to change. Gone were the gentlemen scientists, and in came the professional scientists, paid for his (and at the time, it was still mainly “his”) research. Over the 20th century, and especially following the expansion of government support for those going to universities and research in the post-war years, this system of professional science expanded. While inequalities between those allowed into science’s club remain, this system has permitted more people than ever to enter. But the system of the professional scientist is under threat, and, if current trends continue, we could easily relapse to that world where science was the preserve of those who can afford to enter what is fundamentally a loss-making industry.
The ultimate cause which is placing the system of professional science at stake is the relentless logic of capitalism. Capitalism demands that everything must pay its way to preserve itself, and education is no different. While academics might think that their role in society is to advance knowledge and to teach, administrators know that their role in society is to make money for the university. And to make an extra pound, administrators have proletarianized what was once a well-paid profession, and turned it into one of low wages and precarity. While once a PhD could be expected to live, if not comfortably, decently enough on the doctoral stipend, many now have to turn to second or even third jobs to pay the rent. While once a scientist could expect, once they got a job to keep it and be able to focus on research for decades, now they must continuously be bringing in ever greater sums of grant money or get the boot – if they are lucky! Most will instead be jumping from short term contract to short term contract, from city to city, living on wages that in real terms decrease every year. And while once an academic could trust that they could retire, now universities are undercutting the pension scheme, to ensure that the old age of those now entering the field will end up in penury.
Given these conditions, can anyone be surprised that the UCU, the trade union which represents British academics, has been periodically calling on its members to strike for nearly a decade? I myself have been on the picket lines with comrades, both at St. Andrews and at Oxford. But despite these inspiring efforts, UCU strikes haven’t worked. Thus this year the UCU decided to strike at the universities where they thought it would hurt the most – assessments. A marking and assessment boycott would transform the degrees given by the universities in question from honest assessment of merit to bills of sale, mere proof of attendance. This surely, would make universities pay attention to the union. But unfortunately it assumes that the university is a place of research and knowledge, rather than a business like any other. Universities have responded to this boycott by handing out degrees without assessment, by hiring scabs to assess exams, and by deducting pay of those who are partaking in the MAB. At the moment, it is unclear what the outcome is going to be, but baring a change in legislation to directly assist academics in their dispute, I cannot but help be pessimistic.
So what comes after all the guarantees of a good and stable job in academic disappear, and once the entire field of scientific research becomes one of precarity. Well, science won’t stop, but it will grind to a crawl. Science existed before the advent of the professional, paid, scientist, and it will exist after the end of this career. But science will be the much poorer for it. This isn’t just a question of fairness of meritocracy, but also a question of the quality of science. Many of the giants of post-war science could only enter science because it had become a career – people like the carpenter’s son James Valentine, who practically founded modern ecological thinking in paleobiology, or the cobbler’s son Sydney Brenner, whose work on the genetics of C. elegans establish it as a model organism. The wider inclusion of those who previously weren’t permitted to undertake science also has permitted new discoveries to be made, such as the revolution of sexual selection research in the 1970s which gave females agency in evolution.
No amount of DEI statements and diversity workshops can make up for a decline in the pay and stability of the academic life. So long as academia in general, and science in particular, is treated as a business like any other, it will be disproportionately the domain of those who can afford to enter into it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The next Labour government could place a cap on the number of students, could place caps on administrator salaries, and could massively increase funding for research and for hiring scientists. All of this could help not only increase the quality of British science, but help ensure that British science doesn’t slip back to the way it once was – the domain of OEs in SCRs whose income derives from elsewhere.