For the Love of Free Inquiry

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 6/5/23

Is it time for science to jump the higher ed ship? J. Scott Turner, director of the Diversity in the Sciences Project at the National Association of Scholars, and author of a recent article on Minding the Campus, believes so. For a long time, the sciences and academia have existed together in a mutual relationship: “[u]niversities provide the means for scientists to do science—laboratories, students, bookkeepers, etc. Scientists hustle the grant monies not only to do their work, but also to pay for universities’ costs.” But now, the state of the modern university is rather bleak, and the sciences are no longer protected from the ailments plaguing higher ed.  

Political ideology encroaches on all aspects of campus life, the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” agenda looms large, and tenure is under threat—institutional neutrality, freedom of inquiry, and academic freedom are facing attacks from all sides. The sciences are no exception. For a long time, scientists were content to “do their own thing” at colleges and universities, and largely remained undisturbed and well-funded. But no longer. Turner explains,

In short, academic scientists can no longer assume that they will just be left alone to “do science.” In this new academic ecosystem, the scientist is looking more and more like a galley slave, whose life has come to be governed by a variation on the motto of Quintus Arrius, the galley captain in Ben Hur: “Maximize grant revenues, churn out papers, and live!” … For academic scientists, the question no longer is “who needs whom?”, but rather “who serves whom?”

This sobering reality raises the question: would science be better off under the status quo, or out from under it? Turner affirms the latter and suggests the creation of Independent Science Faculties (ISFs) as a solution—and for those who want academic freedom, it’s compelling.

ISFs would be autonomous professional firms, much like what legal and medical professionals have already created in their respective fields. Turner illustrates what an agreement between ISFs and higher ed institutions could look like:

Imagine that a group of academic biologists working at (for the sake of argument) Simplicio University (SU) decide to leave and organize themselves into an ISF firm (for the sake of argument), Salviati Life Sciences, LLC (SLS). SU now faces a choice. It could hire, at great expense and disruption to its mission, an entire new life sciences faculty. Or it could enter into a contract with SLS to provide the educational and research services its formerly on-board biologists had provided. SU could continue to offer its students a biology curriculum, and SLS could deliver the top-notch education its members had always provided. 

Turner also explains how such details as salaries, tenure, and research abilities would work in ISFs. The faculties would be an expansion of the research institute model—one where scientists could form self-governing, autonomous guilds (which have historically strengthened the sciences). For example, Turner writes:

SLS need not be under any obligation to restrict its services to SU students only. It can “unsilo” itself to offer education to any student from any university with which SLS has a contract. It could even act as a freelance provider. In short, SLS can meet the needs of students navigating through the complex web of knowledge in ways that the turgid universities cannot manage. As part of a larger network of life sciences ISFs, SLS is also now brought into a competitive marketplace, which brings market discipline, and, markets being what they are, incentivizes innovation and adaptability in ways that universities cannot. 

To be clear, every proposed solution has inherent risks. But the takeaway is this: we must act to preserve academic freedom and inquiry, and Turner’s ISF model is a persuasive and thought-provoking experiment. “If done right,” he argues, “scientists in ISFs could have more secure employment, enjoy greater intellectual autonomy, and be freer to innovate and take risks than their present university positions will allow.” 

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

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