Monday, March 14, 2011

Philip Mirowski's "Science-Mart"

Philip Mirowski is Carl Koch Professor of Economics and the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science, and reported the following:
To report on page 99 I have to cheat a little bit and quote something from page 385 footnote 6. There I report that my editor told me “People don’t buy long books anymore.” He meant that readers have become impatient with books that string together a large number of smaller discrete arguments into something much bigger which can only be understood by working through the sequence; perhaps the baleful influence of PowerPoint has fostered the conviction that if you can’t reduce it to five bullet points, it ain’t worth the effort.

My book Science-Mart seeks to call into question the entire amorphous movement to commodify and commercialize scientific research since the 1980s. To accomplish that, it provides (among other things) a history of what economists have said about the ways science operates; a history of three discrete regimes of American science organization in the 20th century; surveys of intellectual property and the biotech sector; an exploration into the difficult question of whether and how much science has been harmed by the commercialization process; and a final meditation on why people are so inclined to believe the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is inherently efficient, when it might just as equally render people more stupid. Lots of stories are recounted along the way to break up the standard genre of academic argument, from the fate of the Oncomouse™ to the fate of Larry Summers.

Page 99 is only getting warmed up recounting how science got simultaneously introduced into both the American university and the large corporation in the early years of the 20th century, something which made the US scene very different from prior German experience. The purpose of this section is to counteract the commonplace belief in the early 21st century that “science has always been commercial”, and thus from some vantage points, what is happening nowadays is really not so very new or threatening. Instead, I point out that science back then was almost never ‘outsourced’, even though it was conducted in corporate labs to generate new commodities, because no one believed back then that research was completely fungible, on a par with the production of widgets imported from some geographically remote firm. A capacity for innovation was something you built, not something you bought. In other words, the “marketplace of ideas” is a notion that took hold only in the late 20th century, with dire results.
Learn more about Science-Mart at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue