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President's Corner: Making Knowledge Scarce

Most members of Science for Peace are workers in the sector now being called the “knowledge industry.” Along with other natural and social scientists, we are finding our situation changing when it comes to the control and evaluation of our own products: ideas.

These changes are especially evident today with respect to the situation of scientists working in Canadian government research institutions. However, their predicament is only part of a much larger trend, which is affecting knowledge work in universities,1 hospitals, and private think tanks.

God must want ideas to flow freely, to judge from the way she constructed the universe. Whereas objects – things that occupy space, time, mass, and energy—are subject to the first law of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy), information is not. If I give you some of my time or property or energy, I will have that much less of it left. But if I give you my information and knowledge, I can still have it, and so can you, and everyone else with whom we share it. Ideas are not conserved. Indeed, you have to make a special effort if you want to keep them scarce. But nowadays there are new pressures that aim to keep certain kinds of knowledge scarce.

We worry most about the political and economic forces that are constraining the free flow of scientific information. However, professional peace researchers, public policy analysts, and other “knowledge workers” may try to widen or narrow the people with whom we share our special knowledge. Although we say we want maximum academic freedom, occasionally we prefer to keep our knowledge scarce. Let’s explore those considerations here.

The control over a field of knowledge can be described in terms of a two-dimensional typology that I’ll borrow from Thomas Medvetz,2 who in turn borrowed from Max Weber.

The first dimension refers to the autonomy or heteronomy of a field of expertise, whereas the second dimension refers to its openness or closure. Medvetz illustrates these dimensions with respect to the medical profession. The autonomy-heteronomy factor refers to a physician’s degree of independence. Doctors have especially high autonomy, for they normally evaluate their patients’ needs and prescribe their treatment without regard to the patients’ own opinions.

Experts usually prefer to maximize their autonomy vis à vis their clients, and they justify this by possessing esoteric knowledge that the client lacks. However, no expert’s autonomy is ever total.

By contrast, the example of a profession that is highly heteronomous or dependent on the client is public relations. A publicist must promote whatever images of her celebrity clients they want the world to see.

Most knowledge workers are between these two poles, to some extent having to curry favor with our clients and employers. In such a balancing act, the safest place is often near the middle of the scale.

When a field of expertise becomes more competitive, its independence—its autonomy—may diminish. Thus whenever universities are competing to attract students or donors, professors may be pressured to adapt their curricula.

The second dimension in our typology is the openness or closure of the expertise. As Max Weber pointed out, closure isolates the specialist from the discourse of laymen. He showed that a group of experts often uses rigorous training and credentialing procedures to limit admissions to their profession so as to protect its prestige.

One might suppose that experts would always try to maximize closure, so as to retain control over their special knowledge. But no, for there can be advantages to having expertise that laypersons can recognize as useful, not just esoteric. When research addresses everyday problems, the public may recognize its value and call on the experts for advice. Thus, the openness of public engagement can have its own value. Here too, experts may prefer neither extreme but the middle ground.

Within the space defined by these two dimensions, Medvetz identifies four contrasting types of experts. His book, Think Tanks in America, describes social scientists working on public policy issues, as also Science for Peace attempts to do collectively. Those at the “open” end of the spectrum are of two types.

The “public intellectual” is the highly autonomous scholar who presents ideas that ordinary people can recognize as significant for contemporary society. (Medvetz names Walter Lippmann as an exemplar from earlier days and Paul Krugman today. Or we may think of Noam Chomsky as the curently prototypical public intellectual.)

The “house intellectual” is also engaged with public issues, but is dependent on sponsors, hence lacks the public intellectual’s autonomy of judgment. Medvetz does not accuse house intellectuals of dishonorably “selling out” to vested interests, but instead he uses the term “elective affinity” to explain their conformity to the ideology of the institution that pays them. Birds of a feather do tend to flock together—presumably by preference.

In the bottom half of the space are two other types of experts, both of whom remain disengaged from public issues and specialize in esoteric knowledge that may seem obscure to the public. For example, a mathematician working on number theory might belong in the “Ivory Tower” category, since her research will have almost no practical usefulness. By contrast we can take pride in Science for Peace, which was founded by natural scientists who were highly knowledgeable about nuclear weapons and who wanted to contribute to the public discourse during the disarmament movement of the 1980s. As “public intellectuals” they criticized their counterparts, the “Ivory Tower” scientists, for lacking an adequate sense of social responsibility.

Finally, there is the “technician” type—an expert who lacks both autonomy and engagement in public affairs. Unfortunately, I think this form of knowledge work is growing, especially as the public comes to base its evaluation of science on instrumental or commercial criteria. I have just attended a conference on science policy that showed just how far the business world and government have moved toward defining science as a technical pursuit of commercially applicable discoveries.

These categories are mainly useful for identifying trends. Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectual3, pointed out some disturbing changes among the American intelligentsia. He admired the “public intellectual” most, but claimed that it was a vanishing breed. For example, he took The New York Review of Books as the best organ of American public discourse, but noted that over time the contributors had become mainly foreigners. Why so? Because, said Jacoby, academic jobs had multiplied in America. People who previously might have become “public intellectuals,” living as bohemians in seedy urban areas, instead became buttoned-up “Ivory Tower” professors, publishing in journals that the public never reads.

Medvetz agrees that American public intellectuals have become less numerous, and he supplements Jacoby’s explanation by noting the emergence of “think tanks” in recent decades. Thousands of such institutions now support scholarly staffs — “house intellectuals” — whose research is engaged with public policy. They lack the autonomy that would enable them to serve as real public intellectuals.

Think tanks cover the entire political spectrum: In the US, examples are RAND, the Worldwatch Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Hoover Institution, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Brookings Institute. In Canada examples are Project Ploughshares, the Perimeter Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Pembina Institute. Their researchers can, without insult, be called “house intellectuals,” and only rarely do their articles or books differ drastically in perspective from their colleagues. I think Medvetz is right in attributing the depletion of public intellectuals to the proliferation of less autonomous jobs in think tanks. The intellectual center of gravity has shifted. However, Canadian think tanks lately have stopped expanding.

I don’t understand why university professors tend to avoid public engagement, but they participate in public discourse less than think tank writers. Television pundits on talk shows, for example, are often think tank intellectuals. Why do academics huddle in the lower right corner of this space as “Ivory Tower” types? A few years ago in his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy criticized his colleagues for shirking public engagement and rewarding each other professionally for publishing only in specialized journals instead of in newspapers, magazines, and on TV talk shows.

The trend in universities is toward commercialized research, especially in the “hard” sciences. This began with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed US universities to reap profits from research conducted with public funding.4 The principle was soon imported to Canada as well and today all universities maintain offices for “matchmaking” faculty members with corporate partners for their mutual financial benefit. Clearly the result of this trend is for “public intellectual” and “Ivory Tower” scientists to become dependent on these partnerships, thereby shifting into the “Technician” category.

Canadians are currently alarmed because the government is keeping researchers from talking openly about their findings, especially where these could question state policies about such economically relevant issues as climate change. But commercial concerns have also been an unnoticed factor in university-based research for at least two decades.

Where are Science for Peace intellectuals located in this typology? We can take pride in the general integrity with which we continue our public engagement. Our discourse is overwhelmingly open instead of closed. However, I don’t think we are making much progress. Fareed Zakaria and Steve Paikin don’t invite us to be on their panels of pundits very often. As public intellectuals, we exert negligible influence on military and foreign policy, perhaps because we are located too far at the openness end of the spectrum.

To qualify as public policy experts we may need more special, esoteric knowledge that is useful in shaping public policy, but which cannot be dismissed as mere opinion or ideology. Maybe we should scoot down a bit toward the closure pole and collect special knowledge that our competitors in political science and international relations have missed. For example, we need to produce more scholarly studies such as Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature 4, which accounts for the decrease in warfare, or Gene Sharp’s immensely influential work, From Dictatorship to Democracy,5 which describes how to depose autocracies, or Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s book, Why Civil Resistance Workss6, which shows the superiority of nonviolent resistance over armed insurrections. Such peace research is both useful and rigorous as scholarly work.

Still, there is a greater danger than the prospect of speaking publicly as activists without possessing genuine expertise. Even worse is the opposite possibility: that that of becoming too esoteric. Most of us should not retreat to the solitary status of “ivory tower scientists” or settle for tinkering around as scientific technicians. Instead, we should reaffirm our calling as public intellectuals, for it is in that realm that serious attention is required. We must participate in that discourse and sustain ourselves as a community of thinking people who know each other personally through gathering in meetings. It is not enough to share ideas online or in our email discussions. The domain of the public intellectual is dwindling away—partly through our own negligence—and we must defend it.

But the loss of autonomy for scholars and scientists is not entirely our own fault. It also results from the cutbacks in government funding for fundamental research. It comes from the official pressure on academics to generate knowledge as scarce intellectual property to be bought and sold on the world market. These are actual societal challenges that need to be studied and analyzed.

I hope that some of us will study the following four important questions:

First: How widespread is this trend toward making knowledge into property? Presumably it is worldwide. The World Trade Organization pays increasingly elaborate attention to patents and intellectual property rights. I’d like to see studies that compare these constraints across different countries and different academic fields.

Second: Is there a connection between the commercialization of research and the militarization of research? Are we witnessing the transformation of the military-industrial complex into the military-industrial-scientific complex?

Third: What legal and institutional changes have taken place with regard to “intellectual property” and how much do these constrain researchers from sharing their findings and research tools with one another and, through the press, with the public?

Fourth: Are there scientific benefits to the commercialization of knowledge that we may be underestimating? Or (as I suspect) is that trend just a stupid historic mistake? If so, we public intellectuals may help to reverse it by defending the norms of free academic inquiry.

Science for Peace can contribute to the analysis of these global trends (which are certainly not restricted to Canada) by creating a network of the scholars studying them. This historical trend can be called the triumph of “neoliberalism” or of “corporate capitalism,” though such terms are simplistic. We need a better analysis of what we are witnessing— the consolidation of power based on a self-serving, philistine approach toward knowledge.

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to develop an alternative, but equally coherent, worldview that valorizes science and scholarship for enlightening our understanding of the universe, rather than for short-term economic usefulness.

Science for Peace’s ethics committee decided last spring to do so by inviting presentations by researchers who are studying current science policy and then by holding an academic conference to analyze these societal and legal trends. If you know scholars who will benefit from participating in such a network, please share this invitation with them. I hope that our project will end by generating a list of “best practices” to inform the institutions that organize knowledge work in Canada.

Metta Spencer is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She is the President of Science for Peace and Editor of Peace Magazine.


1 Howard Woodhouse, Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market. (Montreal: Mc-Gill-Queen’s University Press, 2009) 2 Thomas Medvetz, Think Tanks in America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 3 Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. (New York, Basic Books, 1987). 4 Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: New York Times Books, 2011). 5 Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy. A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. Fourth U.s. edition. (Boston: The Alert Einstein Institution, 2011). 6 Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press, 2011.

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