Academia and (or Versus) Progress

I’ve just finished reading David Shenk’s lovely, humane, elegantly-written book about Alzheimer’s disease, The Forgetting (Anchor Books). What struck me most, professionally, was the view he gives of politics within the scientific community. It seems that the trend today is for scientists, rather than working together in an academic environment as they used to, to gear their research toward the profit sector, for pharmaceutical corporations. Crucial new medical findings are no longer freely shared, because a lot of money depends on getting the vaccine out first. And yet, counterproductive as this may sound, the scientists Shenk interviews, such as Allan Roses here, defend money as a more efficient motivator for scientific progress than academic prestige:

”I was in a situation where I was spending 50 to 60 percent of my time writing grants that never got funded,” [Roses] said of the contrast. “We argued for years about whether [the human gene] ApoE is inside neurons or not. It is in the neurons. We went to every meeting. They said, ‘It’s not in the neurons.’ We would write a grant proposal. ‘Oh, you can’t do that – it isn’t in neurons.’ No grant. So what we have done now is say, ‘Piss off. We’re just going to do it. We’re going to do it right and objectively, on the basis of the data’…. I don’t have to take the time or the people it would involve to publish it.

”Am I keeping anything from my fellow researchers around the world in Alzheimer’s disease? Hell no! All they ever did when I ever said anything was to say, ‘No, no, no.’ We would just argue it at all those scientific meetings. Now we debate in the context of very critical, highly skilled scientists who know that our viability as a team, our viability as a company, and our jobs depend on it – not whether we get it first into publication.” (pp. 188-189)

So innovative scientists, too, get their grants turned down by academics saying, “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” Who knew? The implications of this reconfigured career strategy for music are… well, I’ll let you work that out for yourself.

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