Viridiana Jones and the privatization of US science

mirowskiRecently a deluge of books saw the light on commercialization of academia and the political climate that allegedly enabled this development: neo-liberalism. Examples include If You’re So Smart, Why aren’t You Rich? (Lorentz 2008), Weten is meer dan Meten (Reijngoud 2012), The Fall of the Faculty (Ginsberg 2011), The Commodification of Academic Research (Radder (ed.) 2010), How Economics Shapes Science (Stephan 2012), and Creating the Market University (Popp Berman 2011). A recent book in this trend I would like to bring to the attention of our blog readers is Philip Mirowski’s Science Mart: Privatizing American Science (Harvard UP, 2011). Mirowski is Carl Koch Professor of Economics and the History of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of The Effortless Economy of Science? (2004), Science Bought and Sold (with Esther-Mirjam Sent, eds., 2002), The Road from Mont Pélerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (with Dieter Plehwe, eds, 2009), and a host of articles on the topic. That Mirowski knows a thing or two about his subject also becomes apparent through his writing: He combines an impressive amount of interdisciplinary knowledge with what he calls ‘empirical meditations on the state of contemporary science’. I think he succesfully counters more shallow explanations for the commercialization of (US) academic research that rely on misunderstood versions of neoliberalism. How? By zooming in on more subtle conjunctions of circumstances that ultimately led to the installment of exactly that very hard to counter grand narrative called ‘neoliberalism’. And by demonstrating how specific professions, disciplines, strands of theories abstained from or couldn’t come up with an equally convincing alternative to ‘render the totality of academic life coherent’. Occasionally, Mirowski himself does also fall into the trap of the attractive overarching narrative. For instance when he describes the recent history of the rise and increasing use of citation-analysis and of performance indicators in academia as a development from a neutral information tool to a ‘bureaucratic means of surveillance’. He also assumes – and I think this is a simplification- a causal link between privately owned citation data and the erection of a ‘Science Panopticon’. Nonetheless, Science Mart stands out from a number of the books mentioned above, not in the least due to Mirowski’s daring and ironic tone of voice. (A reference to the first chapter may suffice, in which the author uses a fictive researcher called Viridiana Jones to set the scene of the book).

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