"Slow Science" and the Sequester

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We asked Robin Wolfe Scheffler, who studies the history of biomedicine, cancer virology and scientific infrastructure, what thoughts about contemporary science his work has given him. He sent us the following guest post; you can find out more about Robin's work here.

Last week, Nature and Science had two very different takes on the same problem.

In Science, the editor warns that the current behavior of the United States Congress, particularly the budget sequester, “might justifiably be considered deranged when [it] fail[s] to take actions that will generate tremendous future benefits.” Meanwhile, Nature features an essay profiling five examples of “slow-science”—projects which have been running for decades, even centuries.

While Science warns of the hazards of failing to anticipate major problems in the future, such as the rising rate of Alzheimer’s, the projects in Nature range from profound (the Belgian Solar Influence Data Analysis Center ) to “ignoble” (the pitch drop experiment, depicted below).

Waiting for Science to Happen: The Pitch Drop Experiment
I’m sure that readers of this blog could name other candidates for “slow science.” As a historian of the experimental life sciences sciences, I found this emphasis to be salutary. Below, I offer some thoughts on what "slow science" means in the context of the sequester.

In 2010, a group of scientists in Berlin issued the “slow science” manifesto. An offshoot of the better-known slow food movement, they held in part that: “Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadi­ly, with jerky moves and un­predict­able leaps forward…Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time.”1

However, most of the historiography of the recent sciences focuses on firsts and “breakthroughs.” Where time figures in these narratives, they have often focused on the means by which the tempo of scientific activity has been sped up in, e.g. in computing, in scientific publishing, or in the interaction of venture capital with molecular biology. Indeed, the quest for compressing time might be a candidate for one of the signature ‘ways of knowing’ in the laboratory life sciences.

Of course, we historians will generally be sympathetic to the idea that scientific activity should be regarded as a contingent or unpredictable process rooted in a longue durée timespan.

Historians of more recent science have started to rediscover the longer temporal scale of scientific practice, including AmericanScience's own Joanna Radin’s work on freezers and suspension, Hans-Jörg Reinberger’s idea of science as a process, or Paul Edwards’ recent book on climate science and research infrastructure. As a matter of fact, my colleagues studying the history of astronomy or natural history may argue that this is less a rediscovery than a removal of selective amnesia!

These developments, I think, open up space for a new analysis of temporality, as a feature of scientific work which communities of scientists are capable of both compressing and dilating. My discussion so far has omitted the most looming temporal structure for most contemporary practicing scientists—that of grant applications and laboratory budgets. Scientists have lamented the difficulty of obtaining long-term support for years. 

Today, the situation is much more fraught. The natural sciences are not yet in the position of political science, which just saw its National Science Foundation funding cut for all but those projects which were involved in “directly promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” However, astronomers, particle physicists, and ecologists cannot but be reminded of how the current sequester, and attendant cuts has renewed awkward questions concerning the “payoff” or utility of public support for basic scientific research.

As numerous historians of science have noted, such as those in last September’s Isis Focus Section, the difference between basic versus applied science has routinely been invoked by segments of the scientific community in moments of crisis as ideological categories to defend their budgets and secure their autonomy. It may be the case, if it gains further traction, that the promotion of an ethic of “slow science” represents the most recent variant on a set of claims about the nature of science advanced by scientists to preserve the autonomy of the scientific community. 

Grand claims as to what science is, however, only go so far. We might instead try to answer a set of more immediate, overtly political questions: who would pay for all this slow science, for example, and on what grounds? 

The Super Conducting Super Collider: A casualty of the history of science?
More proximately (for this blog), what role will historians of science fit within this new discussion? 

The relationships between historians of science and scientists in financial crisis have not been smooth in the past. Indeed, during the heated “Science Wars” of the 1990s some historians of science even found themselves accused of causing the demise the multibillion dollar Superconducting Super Collider. As EO Wilson declared at the 1994 History of Science Society meeting, “multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism.”2

However, the discussion surrounding sequestration appears to be of a different kind than other Federal budget crises faced by the sciences since the Second World War. Like other current debates over health care, financial regulation, or civil rights, our current political environment has placed a set of previously settled questions up for grabs. 

This is, of course, profoundly unsettling for scientists, but it may also open up the discussion over how public support for science should be structured in a manner that we haven’t seen in decades. Is slow science synonymous with big science? How could support for long-term projects be established, both financially and politically?

If this is the case, our ability as historians to talk about the rhythms, infrastructures, or scales of scientific work may allow the history of science to play a major role in adjusting the frame of science policy. 

[1] This group is not particularly well known, a fact illuminated by their manifesto's opening line: “We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter.”

[2] I suspect satire is at work here, but in either serious or satirical forms his comment captures the political charge that histories of science could take on. If anyone reading this saw Wilson’s address, I’d love to know what the temperature of the room was!


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