Independence of research at the Annual 4S Meeting in Boston “STS (In)Sensibilities”

30th August to 2nd September 2017

The independence of science has been – and still is – a contentious and multifaceted theme in science studies. Originally defended against the idea of central planning (Polanyi 1962) and cast as functionally necessary, its value today appears to be context-dependent. STS scholars have critically analyzed the dependency of research on industry and the resulting secrecy or distortion of findings (Krimsky 2013). At the same time, we have critically analyzed the independence of research from civil society, which we consider undemocratic, irresponsive, and dysfunctional. Research has been able to demonstrate that independence from civil society actors contributes to consequential gaps in scientific knowledge (Frickel et al. 2010).

Not surprisingly, conference participants discussed the independence of researchers and research from a variety of angles and with varying degrees of explicitness. The two sessions we convened in collaboration with Ed Hackett (Brandeis University, USA) addressed the InRes theme head-on. The session “Academic careers: Gaining independence in different national contexts” brought together researchers from Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands and the US. Mery Hamui and Alejandro Canales (Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana and UNAM; Mexico) described the specific paths through which Mexican doctoral candidates in different disciplines move from dependent to independent research. Grit Laudel (Technical University Berlin, Germany) used data on German Early career scientists in the ‘group leader’ stage to demonstrate that there is a gap between the formal independence that might be granted by an organisational position and actual independence in the sense of having authority over one’s research goals and approaches. This gap, which exists not only in Germany but also in other countries, motivates Grit’s InRes project, which compares the actual independence of early career researchers on formally independent positions in Germany (junior professors and group leaders), the UK (lecturers), France (maitre de conference) and the US (assistant professors). Bart Penders (Maastricht University, Netherlands) investigated the relationship between (in)dependent research and authorship in academy-industry collaborations in the Dutch nutrition science. He showed that authorship of industrial researchers is strategically decided by the company, and is often decoupled from actual contributions in the research collaboration. At the university side of the collaboration, the link between research contributions and authorship is stronger, although some dissociation of work and authorship could also be observed. Finally, Caitlin Donahue Wylie (University of Virginia, USA) showed how research careers are shaped by very early selections, which are based on the observed professors’ expectations how undergraduates should show excitement concerning research.

A second session with the title “The (In)dependence of Research(ers): Good? Bad? Necessary?” invited researchers to address independence more generally from a variety of perspectives. Peter Thayer Robbins (Open University, UK) discussed a specific new dependence relation, namely that of the UK’s university research on the assessors of ‘impact’. Jochen Gläser (Technical University Berlin, Germany) presented the InRes project “Competition for funding and Redistribution of opportunities for independent research”, which is motivated by the observation that previous success in grant acquisition becomes increasingly important for future success. The project will compare the formulation of research problems by those who are ‘locked in’ in the grant funding (the elite that is always successful with grant applications), those who are ‘locked out’ (are never successful), and the ‘middle class’ that constantly struggles for the continuation of their research. Clemence Pinel (King’s College London, UK) discussed how the metrics applied to researchers in the field of epigenetics get interwoven with the everyday concerns about epistemically successful research. The struggle of researchers to balance diverse expectations makes them resemble entrepreneurs that need to keep a business (their research group) afloat. She found that researchers investigate only few of the possible causes of epigenetic change, and that this selective approach is due to both epistemic reasons (the high complexity of other potential causes) and political reasons (priorities of UK funding agencies). Finally, Mark Robinson (Creighton University, USA) presented a surprising but entirely convincing perspective on ‘translational research’. Using data on the policy initiative, responses by universities and activities of pharmaceutical companies, Robinson argued that we need to look at the campaign for translational research as a move by industry to outsource the risky business of discovery to publicly funded university research. Universities essentially become biotech start-ups, which are tightly bound to Pharma by contracts that make sure that Pharma will reap the benefits.

The independence of research also played a role in several other presentations at the conference. It was touched upon in the three sessions on “Academic Evaluation in an Age of ‘Post Truth’” and the two sessions on “Can the Subaltern Research?”. Particularly interesting concerns in these and other sessions were the epistemic independence of national scientific communities and national science policies, with the latter often adopting priorities of the global north that did not fit local circumstances. On a different note, Philip Mirowski’s argued that ‘Open Science’ is a neoliberal project aimed at further subjugating knowledge production to the market, thereby potentially endangering the independence of all of science.

The conference proved that the independence of research is a thread common to many discussions, even though it is not always framed as such. We look forward to inviting more colleagues to reconsider their work from the perspective of independence.


Cited works

Frickel, Scott, Sahra Gibbon, Jeff Howard, Joanna Kempner, Gwen Ottinger and David J. Hess (2010). Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting. Science, Technology & Human Values 35(4): 444-473.

Krimsky, Sheldon (2013). Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research?: An Inquiry into the “Funding Effect” Hypothesis. Science, Technology & Human Values 38(4): 566-587.

Polanyi, Michael (1962). The Republic of Science. Minerva 1(1): 54-73.