Nine Causes of Scientific Decline in American Academia
People frequently write about academic political bias but rarely about the degradation of academic scientific capacities. Nevertheless, the signs of this degradation are everywhere. One example is embracing the pseudo-science of climate alarmism. The degree of enthusiasm has varied from Caltech’s tacit approval to the full-throat fervor of Harvard University president Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. Another sign is a chronic failure of the $300 billion-dollar-a-year post-secondary educational system to produce enough computer specialists. Lastly, there’s the academia’s failure to distance itself from the Union of Concerned Scientists (Disclosure: the author has a pending lawsuit against the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Ford Foundation and other defendants.) and the ongoing “Bill Nye the Science Guy” media hoax.
In hindsight, over the period from the late 1980s to 2016, many factors had contributed to the downfall of the academic integrity and scientific capacity. The major factors were:
1. Unnatural, politically-spurred growth of college enrollment without regard to the economic or social demand for the increasing number of college graduates and even the supply of sufficiently prepared and motivated college applicants. This quantity instead of quality approach has been known to be harmful, and it was.
2. The takeover of the universities and colleges by the New Left. Apparently, many radicals of the 60s hadn’t learned from the fall of the Soviet Union and continued to think of the U.S. as an evil “system” that needed to be overthrown. By trusting the good will of its faculty, the university system presented the New Left an excellent opportunity to sabotage scientific development. Not all radicals went into social disciplines to poison the minds of the new generation. Some of them went into science, and corrupted scientific institutions through environmental studies and other means. Their impact was amplified by big money from the Ford Foundation and its ilk.
3. Foreign influence. Science, as a pursuit of knowledge, is international. But scientific recognition can be influenced by politics. Environmental politics of the European Union in the 1990s heavily impacted scientific processes in the U.S.
One of the most important things for a scientist is the ability to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Consequently, editors of the prestigious scientific journals wield enormous power. But most English-language scientific journals have international editorial boards. Furthermore, most scientific journals are owned by foreign publishers. The three largest scientific publishers are: Reed-Elsevier (UK), Springer (Germany), and Holtzbrinck (Germany). The latter two merged in 2015. EU-centric scientific publishing has allowed EU politics to infringe on American science without people noticing.
American academia also corruptly promoted scientists for collaboration with the International Panel on Climate Change and other UN agencies.
4. The rise of "studies" with predetermined results, as opposed to the normative sciences, valued for their understanding of the laws of nature. Certain political developments caused this. Then confrontational environmentalism and tort litigation requested scientists to back their claims, no matter what, and generously paid. This went against all norms. Science starts with empirical facts (observations or experimental results) and arrives to conclusions based on them. “Post-normal science” starts with conclusions (provided by politicians or activists) and contorts itself accordingly to justify these conclusions.
Demand for such “science” came from many places. The Environmental Protection Agency was one of them, while increasingly wealthy environmental organizations were another. During the 1980’s to the 1990’s, we saw the plaintiff bar tearing apart manufacturing industries using tort and product liability laws. Asbestos litigation alone yielded tens of billions of dollars. Some of the loot went to Democratic Party politicians who created and expanded those laws. Even more money was paid to expert witnesses. This money incentivized academics to advance scientifically unsound theories, supporting dubious plaintiff claims.
5. Al Gore! Bill Clinton had an unusual arrangement with his vice president, where he granted Al Gore full responsibility for some functions of the government. Clinton used to say that his VP Gore was the most powerful VP in the history of the country. In fact, Al Gore received an absolute power in science. But Al Gore was incapable of understanding physics and had an almost religious hostility toward modern science and technology. From Rupert Darwall, The Age of Global Warming: A History: “…Gore argued, Bacon and the scientific method thereby contributing to the extreme evils perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin. Gore’s accusation against science shows an extraordinary misreading of history. … Yet Gore’s assault on the Scientific Revolution met with silence from leading academies and societies.” (Kindle Locations 5278-5279, 5283-5285).
6. Affirmative action and diversity policies have come into deadly synergy with environmentalist agendas, successfully tearing down American science. In the 1990s, affirmative action appointees didn’t need any qualifications and bore loyalty to nobody but those who appointed them. Thus, they could be used to carry out any policies, no matter how extreme. For example, Al Gore fired eminent physicist Will Happer from the position of the Director of Research in the Department of Energy for merely proposing measuring effects of postulated ozone layer depletion. Martha Krebs, a Ph.D. without any scientific jobs on her CV, was appointed in his place.
7. Academic scientists’ blindness to these developments seems amazing in hindsight. One explanation is that they supported Democrats and were conditioned to believe that a danger to scientific research and academic freedom comes from conservatives and Republicans.
They were further desensitized because the changes were additive; environmental studies and other nonsense were added as the universities grew, until their influence drowned out that of the hard sciences. If biology professors were fired to let environmental activists take their place, the response would be quite different. In academia, fake scientists prevailed over real scientists and speak on behalf of science now. Fake news media believe them or act as if they do.
8. Suppression of the independent science. The Left and then mainstream Democrats have been ranting about since the 1990s, calling it “corporate science”. The combined litigation and legislation campaign painted as a fight against Big Tobacco is still not sufficiently recognized for what it became. It targeted a highly unpopular and, possibly, evil industry to set the precedent that the Democrats might silence independent scientists by going after the businesses that make them independent.
9. Universities’ abrogation of their duty to prepare new generations of American scientists and engineers. Whether driven by their elitist contempt of preparing specialists demanded by productive economics or by ideological preference, the universities have been churning out radicals in place of skilled graduates able to live in mutual harmony with society. Feminism played its role by demanding a decrease of male faculty and students in science and engineering.
And there was also market dynamics at play. Successful graduates in economically demanded fields have found jobs outside academia, while unemployable “studies” majors stayed in the system and outside nincompoops entered it, staying true to the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.” This was a recipe for disaster -- more useless faculty generated more useless graduates, many of whom stayed in academia, inflating size of the departments producing more of their kind, and so on. The politics of the National Scientific Foundation also caused exodus of the best scientific minds.
The remaining vacuum has been filled by immigration. More than half of faculty in science and engineering departments of most universities are foreign-born and raised, mostly not from Western countries. I don’t doubt their qualifications, ethics, and loyalty. But, there is one thing they are totally incapable of doing (with few exceptions) -- defending the academic freedom of scientists and the integrity of science. Almost by definition, this means a successful integration of an immigrant working in a university means an acceptance of the Leftist oppression as a norm.
Academia seems to have been allowed to employ an immigration policy of its own. Nearly one million foreign students currently study in the U.S.; the top countries are China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Unlike their American counterparts, most foreign students study sciences, math, and engineering.
I know that thousands of outstanding scientists work and teach in academia. Academic institutions are to blame for suppressing or ignoring their contributions.
Thanks to H.J. for collaboration in writing this article.