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Networked Science: Who’s It Good For?

Diane Rhoten writes in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education about the concept of networked science. The Manhattan Project, she says, brought us the era of Big Science: ambitious projects, organized in a “top-down, hierarchical, vertical” manner, requiring lots of cash, fancy equipment, dedicated facilities, and a long-term outlook.
Next we got Team Science, fueled mostly by the life sciences. Big Science was shaped by instrumentation – what kind we do with this nifty supercollider? – while Team Science is “tailored to the parameters of the specific investigation” – hey, let’s sequence a genome!

Big Science ties scientists to specific instrumentation located at certain institutions; Team Science ties scientists to an idea.
But all that’s by the wayside now, folks, because we are entering the age of NETWORKED SCIENCE!!! Networked science is introduced in the first paragraph of Rhoten’s article with this anecdote:

This summer, Edward Melcarek, a Canadian in his 50s with a master’s degree but no Ph.D., solved yet another scientific problem through InnoCentive, an open, online platform that connects world-class scientists with companies to collaborate on complex scientific challenges. InnoCentive works by broadcasting companies’ problems to a network of scientists, who receive cash prizes of $10,000 to $100,000 for submitting winning solutions. The money is incentive enough to people like Melcarek, who works on the problems in his spare time, but a drop in the bucket for a company, compared with the costs of hiring researchers to meet all its rapidly evolving scientific needs.

Rhoten writes rhapsodically about Networked Science as “a major structural and cultural redesign of how we produce knowledge” and indeed it is. She acknowledges that there is some risk involved in this change, but the risk she identifies is that of learning how to assign credit and how to value things like “problem solutions, database compilations, and computational simulations, not just scholarly publications”.
I think that will be a minor problem next to the risk of having your faculty position outsourced and off-shored. For if Networked Science is the wave of the future, what is the point of having expensive research faculty on staff? Science and engineering has not yet seen the assault on tenure that the humanities have experienced: the wave of adjuncts. But we do have a very large surplus of postdocs, at least in the sciences. Surely we can divert some of the stream into poorly paid, piecework teaching positions, and others into fund-for-yourself research slots.
Rhoten sees Networked Science as giving researchers “more choice, control, and ownership of their work than they would have in the Team Science Model”, taking us “from bench-top science to lap-top science”. It sounds beautiful. When I was a graduate student, radiology was a medical specialty that seemed attractive; today, radiology is on its way to becoming laptop medicine – many functions of a radiologist can and are being outsourced. Call me cynical, but I’m just thinking that an arrangement which saves companies the expense of having to actually “hire researchers to meet all [their] rapidly evolving scientific needs” cannot possibly be in the best long-term interests of the scientists themselves. What this is, is a nice arrangement for pushing down the wages of a highly educated and trained workforce.
Women in the garment industry used to do piecework, too. Piecework is not the way to a secure lifestyle nor, in the United States, is it going to get you the niceties like health and disability insurance, let alone a 401(k) or pension plan. But hey, if it saves the companies some cash, what’s not to love? We can all sit at home with our laptops, dutifully cogitating away for Pharma or AgraCorp. We can go to work in the laboratories of universities who do not employ us and provide us no benefits. We can work on whatever we want, as long as it saves somebody some money.
I will admit that my view of Networked Science is just as dark and foreboding as Rhoten’s is overly sunny and optimistic. But I think these are things worth concerning ourselves about. It would indeed be better if we could develop “fluid, responsive networks of scientists and engineers”; it would be better if we could learn to give people credit for more and different kinds of work than just the scholarly paper. But having industry’s need and desire to cut costs drive and shape the changing culture of academic science – that, I think, is not a good thing, for scientists in or outside academia.
I’m really sorry the Rhoten article is behind a paywall. I would love for my readers to be able to access it and give me your feedback. Hopefully I have given you enough of a flavor that you can still discuss the issue.

  1. September 6, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    This is what Vernor Vinge imagined in “Rainbows End” (which just got a Hugo last week).

  2. September 6, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    I can see the concern about outsourcing scientific research, but honestly a big gripe of mine is that people who are doing R&D for some of the big problems we’re having nowadays seem limited by their own specialization. Of course, it’s not always like that, but it’s sometimes hard to find researchers who have a broader understanding and perspective beyond their niche, and I firmly believe that expanding the horizons of the perspectives one takes into account when looking for a solution to these kinds of problems is the key to finding truly innovative solutions. An excellent example I’ve been thinking of lately is how engineers are starting to turn to biologists for insights into how nature has already found solutions to some fundamental design problems that seem to be stumping us humans. What if it turns out that one field, relatively removed from the one trying to solve a particular problem, has some valuable insights and perspectives that end up making a huge difference? For that reason, I think networked science has amazing potential, and I definitely agree with what you say about “giving people credit for more and different kinds of work than just the scholarly paper” – this could be a great way for people to contribute and be recognized for their ideas, which can be very distinct from their research.

  3. September 7, 2007 at 9:14 am

    And, btw, this was the focus of my review of Rainbows End.

  4. September 7, 2007 at 9:14 am

    And, btw, this was the focus of my review of Rainbows End.

  5. JSinger
    September 7, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Looking at the problems they posted, they seem appealing mostly to labs that already have a solution (or something that can be easily adapted to such a solution) and can now have a quick route to commercialization.
    Of course, I work in industry. Maybe an academic PI looks at them and says “Hey, if I brought in another postdoc and made his salary contingent on his earnings…!”

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