Talking about Technocracy

Readers of this blog know that I’ve fretted a fair bit about recent invocations of “innovation” as an economic engine,  finding this recessionary return of Yankee Ingenuity to be  short on attention to issues of sustainability, corporate privilege, and the inequities of global labor markets.  But this selective vision is really part of a much bigger problem, I think. The sheer pervasiveness of scientific and technical knowledge in our industrialized culture, and the countless products of this expertise with which Americans are surrounded every day, render this human enterprise strangely invisible from any critical vantage point.

Put another way: For more affluent citizens, it is just awfully hard to turn away from the non-stop technology-party to which American car commercials, WIRED magazine, and the Apple store invite us.

I wonder…Were America’s few moments of widespread, really palpable criticality regarding technology–say, just after Hiroshima, or around the first Earth Day in 1970–so rare as to be culturally insignificant? Can we more well-off Americans of the 21st Century ever stop texting long enough to ask some hard  questions about the costs of our techno-centric lifestyles and what they mean for the nation’s “have-nots” (and talk about your loaded terms!), for the rest of the planet, for our grandchildren? Really, what is meant by “democracy” in a society where such questions are not asked?

I’m eager to see what ideas surface at a conference I’m joining at Harvey Mudd College later this week, for their 2012 Hixon Forum on Responsive Science and Engineering:  Engineers, Exact Scientists (Technocrats) and Political Processes: Global Perspectives. If you’re in the area, come by; it’s free an open to the public!

The historians, philosophers and others speaking at the meeting will talk about “technocracy,” a concept that has interestingly had a largely negative connotation in the U.S.  since its brief glory days early in the 20th century. Herbert Hoover notwithstanding, few Americans of any subsequent era have pictured engineers or even scientists as the experts best equipped to run the nation. I’d say it was the discouraging narrowness and inhumanity of the Soviet model that made us turn away from technocratic leadership, but the lawyers we do tend to choose as our cultural spokespersons on the global stage (whether Democratic or Republican) hardly make a habit of critiquing technology.  “Technocrats” sound narrow and unimaginative; but a culture committed to “technology”? Exciting and prosperous!

I want to understand why we make that distinction. And, why we spend very little time on public discourse about science and engineering, despite their influence on our lives. A little reflection, please, about how our culture discourages big questions about the knowledge, skills, and investments that shape our material world.  Some of my students, focussing on the ways that science and technology serve profit structures, would say, “It’s Capitalism!”…absolutely, but that’s where the explanation begins, not ends. I’m hoping this gathering will be a chance to see how this situation has come to be, and how it might change.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!