A Bayesian Market

Found this job posting:

Your research will cover any area of evolutionary biology, including adaptation, phylogenetics, population genetics and environmental genomics. You should be using advanced data acquisition and/or analytical approaches (e.g., high-throughput sequencing or other “omics”, Bayesian statistics, bioinformatics).

I have no prima facie quarrel with the omics or the Bayesian, both of which I have used. Nor do I object to an interview process with criteria. No smelly sociopathic ecologists need apply.

But the notice assigns such tautologies to scientific practice–despite its face-saving ‘e.g.’–as to drop evolutionary biology down an epistemological gravity well. Knowledge is forced to circle very local disciplinary hills (or drains for the more cynical).

In the course of explaining the rise of experiment-free string theory, Lee Smolin summarizes what such path-dependent hiring practices have done to physics,

Universities stopped growing in the early 1970s, yet the professors hired in previous eras have continued to train graduate students at a steady rate, which means that there is a signifiicant overproduction of new PhDs in physics and other sciences. As a result there is a fierce competition for places in research universities and colleges at all levels of the academic hierarchy. There is also much more emphasis on hiring faculty who will be funded by the research agencies. This greatly narrows the options for people who want to pursue their own research programs rather than follow those initiated by senior scientists. So there are fewer corners where a creative person can hide, secure in some kind of academic job, and pursue risky and original ideas.

Related to this is the fact that the universities are now much more professionalized than they were a generation or two ago. Whereas university faculties have stopped growing, there has been a marked increase in the number and power of administrators. Thus, in hiring, there is less reliance on the judgment of individual professors and more on statistical measures of achievement, such as funding and citation levels. This also makes it harder for young scientists to buck the mainstream and devote themselves to the invention of new research programs.

Intellectual devolution is entwined with a broader economy.

Students are increasingly entrapped in predatory loans for degrees which, in this new economy, despite the political rhetoric, offer little  access to the earning power to pay them back. Student debt is meanwhile bundled into and traded as lucrative subprime securities. As these derivatives are backed by preemptive bailouts and the loans by mandatory remittance, only students, rarely investors, carry the risk.  Unlike homeowners, students are now blocked by law from declaring debt-driven bankruptcy, their wages, Social Security and unemployment benefits to be garnished in perpetuity.

As Malcolm Harris describes it, the resulting university bubble, like its housing predecessor, feeds on itself,

The loans and costs are caught in the kind of dangerous loop that occurs when lending becomes both profitable and seemingly risk-free: high and increasing college costs mean students need to take out more loans, more loans mean more securities lenders can package and sell, more selling means lenders can offer more loans with the capital they raise, which means colleges can continue to raise costs. The result is over $800 billion in outstanding student debt, over 30 percent of it securitized, and the federal government directly or indirectly on the hook for almost all of it.

But the new money rarely makes its way to education, ostensibly the university’s raison d’etre. Indeed it paradoxically pumps resources out, with classes taught by grad students and recent grads, itinerant labor cornered by the hiring clog and their own debt into teaching for subminimal wages.

To where then flows the funding?

When you hire corporate managers, you get managed like a corporation, and the race for tuition dollars and grants from government and private partnerships has become the driving objective of the contemporary university administration. The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens; now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class. Instead we have, in [Marc] Bousquet’s words, “the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobbyhorses of administrators: Digitize the curriculum! Build the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bring more souls to God! Win the all-conference championship!”

Even in a day of dying tenure and informal labor, or rather, given the increasingly capital-securitized nature of universities and the kinds of money needed to house industrial sequencers, because of such shifts, at its highest heights evolutionary biology advances at a stately pace.

One dead dean at a time.


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