Saturday, February 4, 2017

Who is in Charge of the House of Science?

I was rushing, worried, scanning the house to make sure everything was in order before the new occupant arrived. I was not ready to leave, in fact did not want to leave. I worried about the children -
would these substitute parents be good to them? How could I even leave them? Would the house be cared for?

These are bits and pieces of a dream that had me tossing in my sleep last week. It was my second nighttime visit of thoughts and worries concerning the future of science after co-hosting a living room salon to discuss trust and ethics.

My dream about the transfer of responsibility to caretakers of my own house was almost certainly precipitated by an exercise I undertook from Liberating Structures to give ReImagine Science a score on how participatory our own meetings are. Turns out that in spite of our commitment to such, we aren't. Not really. Not enough.

The dream also revealed my fear of letting go of decision-making and leadership. ReImagine Science is my baby. It is something I have given my life over to. Perhaps this is shared by those I personally see as old, arrogant and powerful in science. Perhaps they too have a deep commitment to the foundational place in society for science 'done well.' We might share this concern of giving over power for something we have given our lives to that we care for very much.

Michael Faraday

This may be the same power redistribution I imagine the top leadership in science is experiencing (and resisting) right now.

Nevertheless, hosting the salon gave me clarity. The truth is that science is dying. I have been lost in contemplation over it. At times I simplistically view it as a transfer of power from the aging arbiters of policy and money in science to the swelling ranks of scientists who are trained and ready to step out of lengthy years of training (PhD, post-doc) and into their careers. But this young generation of scientists have already been abandoned by science itself at this flexion point – and they know it. But as science as we know it dies, something new is waiting to be born.

One thing is clear to me. The future of science will not be informed by the past. Can these young scientists really take over the care of the giant structure in which science is housed? And what can they know about taking care of a house that is in the process of being dismantled? If our next generation of scientists are required to succeed in the current structure, how well-equipped might they be to lead change? If not, then who will be?

This slow-burning, mounting crisis rides atop the ending of three different arcs of societal evolution. We are all caught in a mash-up of all three bursting at the seams, beginning to change all at the same time. What will this explosion look like, and where will all the bright, shiny pieces land?

First, there was the era of domination as a societal organizing principle, with men holding power, and war and destruction being the major driver of dominance.

In 'The Chalice and the Blade' Riane Eisler suggests that this current dominator model, where technology is used in service to conquering vs partnership, is maladaptive*. If the time-line suggested by current archeological evidence, as interpreted by Eisler, is correct, this era gained full footing when the equalitarian people of Crete were conquered approximately 3,500 years ago.

The second trend-line began 400 years ago. The age of reason and enlightenment drove the scientific method. We have benefited tremendously from these reductionist approaches to experiment and discovery. The idea of isolating variables, and requiring reproducible results**, lead to an age of reason, and a scientifically-grounded society. Kudos to that!

Last came the post-WWII era. Vannevar Bush married the attainment of the Ph.D with original research, and our basic research arm nested itself in the university. PhDs became our next crop of products, tied hand-in-hand with the discovery process. It has all worked beautifully, creating a very robust system for scientific and societal growth.

But the end of the ways things have previously worked seems to be coming at us, quite visibly in many cases, with workforce issues being one of the areas in nearly full breakdown. Indeed, science is no different from the majority of industries undergoing radical reboots.


Attention to the changing demographics in science, and the lack of empowerment of our younger generations of scientists, has been quietly shared in the public domain over the years. Here is some recommended reading on the topic:
*For an intense portrayal of how a domination model is maladaptive, the contents of the book 'Woman and Nature, the Roaring Inside Her' by Susan Griffin will sit heavily. 'Lifting the Veil, the Feminine Face of Science' by Linda Jean Shepherd, one of ReImagine Science's co-founders, is an excellent source of ideas and discoveries about the roots of our current age of reductionist approach and the idea of conquering nature as our best application of technology.
**(change is afoot in this domain as well)

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