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Science and the Public Good in the American Research University


This study uses the public controversy that erupted around the research partnership between the University of California, Berkeley and British Petroleum founding the Energy Biosciences Institute as an entry point into a three-part analysis in the sociology of knowledge, broadly defined. A systematic reconstruction of the controversy and review of existing scholarship on changes in the American science regime, transformation of public research universities and the politics of emerging technologies indicate that both lay and scholarly accounts on these related phenomena can be organized roughly under two headings. Under one heading, observers draw on an implicit or explicit attachment to the Enlightenment ideal of reason to wage critiques that are not adequately attentive to the conditions of production of science and technology. Under the other, observers offer detailed accounts of university-industry research relations, changes in universities and developments in technoscience, but without adequate critique.

To move beyond this impasse, I propose to resuscitate Robert K. Merton’s proposal to theorize science as an institution in relation to its societal context, but dispense with the idea of “relative autonomy” that informs both his and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of science. Taking the Energy Biosciences Institute as a signpost for key forces shaping science and technology today, I argue that the production of reliable knowledge is strongly interdependent with economic capital and technology, and that this interdependence renders the stipulation of autonomy obsolete. Combining this argument with insights from science and technology studies regarding (i) the variety of products of research, (ii) the dissolution of the boundary between science and technology; and (iii) how technoscience is inherently political, I argue that it is the nature of associations and engagements that shapes science’s perils and promise for different constituencies. In this framework, the basis for critique is no longer the loss of autonomy, but the lack of democracy resulting from inequalities of various forms of capital. This proposed shift in the basis of critique helps advance the definition and defense of the public interest in debates on universities and on technoscience.

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