science vs. paperwork

Scientists get frustrated with paperwork. No surprise there — we all do. But when the paperwork has to do with the very conditions under which new knowledge can be produced, its consequences are more significant than a mere waste of time or the emotional anguish of deciphering bureaucratese. Science can be risky in a number of ways, and in the past half-century or so there has been an efflorescence of efforts to formally manage that risk without undermining scientists’ ability to do what we value them (and pay them) for: find out new, fascinating, and potentially useful things about the world. That balancing act hasn’t always been easy — rather, hasn’t ever been easy — to perform.

I’ve been thinking about this issue off and on over the past couple of years in the context of endangered species research. It’s clear that scientific research is essential to conservation, but it’s also clear that scientists often want to do things to members of endangered species that are otherwise prohibited by law, and for good reason. Capture or kill them, for example. That means some way has to be found to reconcile the needs of science with the protection of species.

I touched on this issue in my book Wired Wilderness in 2010 and in an article in the Journal of the History of Biology that came out around the same time. Now I’ve taken another stab at it in an article coming out imminently in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (downloadable here), under the snappy though possibly misleading title, “Endangered Science”.

The article isn’t so much about the threat that conservation regulations pose to science as about the fact that some influential biologists have perceived them to be a threat and have mobilized politically to fight them. What I wanted to do this time around was place these scientists’ concerns within the broader context of anti-regulatory, anti-government activism in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. That is, to normalize questions about scientific freedom and autonomy by suggesting that scientists were, in an important sense — though certainly not in all ways — just another professional group seeking to protect its prerogatives from external interference, at a time when the regulatory functions of the U.S. federal government, particularly in the environmental arena, were becoming intensely politicized.

For me, there’s a personal side to this research interest that has only became clear to me recently, though in another way it’s been obvious all along. A while back, after I finished my MA in psychology at Stanford — more precisely, after I dropped out of the PhD program — and before I started my PhD in history and science studies, I worked for a year at the American Psychological Association. I had some great colleagues there, but I also got a distasteful introduction to professional politics: the constant effort to tell only those stories about one’s field that will keep the most degrees of freedom open for members of the profession (in this case psychological researchers and clinicians).

There’s nothing dishonorable about that effort, just as there’s nothing dishonorable about factory workers trying to make sure their wages and working conditions are as good as possible. The difference, perhaps, and what made it distasteful to me, is that scientists often claim to be aiming (and only aiming) for something higher — for truth, for objectivity, for the betterment of mankind. Those claims aren’t false or trivial, but they aren’t the whole story either, and if we pretend they are, we’re missing something big.

By looking at exactly how the rhetoric and mechanics of the regulation of science work, I (and many others) think we can learn something profound about the special place of science in contemporary society, and how that place is changing. To get at the big picture requires more than just situating one’s narrow interests in a broader context, though. It requires actually comparing and contrasting regulatory and ethical developments in the sciences across a wide range of disciplines and national contexts, something that is beyond the reach of any single scholar.

In order to get a glimpse of that bigger picture, I’ve organized a workshop on “Regulating Research” at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science on March 16-17 that will bring together historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and legal scholars to compare notes on the regulation of research in biology, archaeology, chemistry, ecology, anthropology, and other fields. The workshop program is available here. All the sessions are open to the public with pre-registration, so if you’re in Berlin and want to check it out, just send me an email.

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.