The Overton window – Overton juggernaut Science edition: Part 4

Can’t resist this incredible picture I’m afraid. Brought to you by ClubTroppo ® “At least enough part of the problem to be complaining about the solution”.

I’ve written about the Overton window previously. 1 Of its crazy, gravitational pull. Of the way in which things are outside the Overton window, not because they would offend anyone, not because there’s big money out to stop them but just, well as we said in primary school “Because.” To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing that stops things being talked about, which is not talking about them. More or less finishes them off if no-one’s talking about them.

Our elites are groupish to a tee and it’s driving me crazy. Indeed, if I were to try to theorise it beyond that, if I were to try to identify what’s driving such fecklessness, I’d identify some analogue of Jay Rosen’s cult of savviness to explain why the conversation about what things might be done to improve our world is dominated by a different topic which is ‘what’s the word on the street?’, ‘What are the cool kids wearing these days?’. Anyway, my naïve hope would be that institutions quietly work away at addressing problems, seizing opportunities. They might do so individually or collectively because different issues require different mixes of individual and collective effort.

There’s also the pull of what I’ve called ‘debate as culture war’. In a culture war, the ‘sides’ are well defined. This makes it convenient for both participants and spectators of the ‘debate’. They just have to pick their side. And just as JS Bach explained that it was easy to play the organ (you just move your fingers up and down on the keyboard and the thing more or less plays itself) so the arguments more or less write themselves. Teachers are Good and defend Education and people who criticise teachers are Bad and defend Punitive, Neoliberal Philistinism or [insert Bad Thing].

The identities of the various things at issue now rendered stable and clear – the debate can then take place in terms of less and more (funding), pro or anti – various well understood positions/ sympathies/ people. …Culture war questions need to be answered, like ‘how much funding’ should this or that activity receive? But there are a whole lot of other questions, and given that mainstream political parties tend to agree to within a few percentage points on the size of most outlays, the harder, more interesting, more neglected questions are probably much more important. They’re questions about internal transformation. Perhaps the best example is education, where funding is obviously important, but where we’ve got lots to learn about how to build a high-quality education system. And that’s essentially independent of the funding question.

In any event, I was thinking about this as I read this interesting interview with someone who’s written on the economics of science funding. If we cared about science, if we were really into being a knowledge noodle nation or whatever we’re supposed to be these days, wouldn’t you think we’d want to get into this kind of stuff? In fact, I’m not close to science policy, so perhaps we’re busily sorting it all out.  But here’s a quick list from the interviewee. And my guess is that while some people will be talking about the issues, nothing much will be happening. But as Stephen Colbert once said to Bill O’Reilly, I’d love to be nailed so please fill me in if I’m wrong:

It’s easier, of course, to point out what’s wrong with incentives than to talk about how to fix them, but at a start, I would make at least five changes:

1  Limit the amount of salary that scientists can write off of grants, thereby discouraging the hiring of scientists on soft money positions.

2  Require that departments post placement data for their graduates on the web. Require that faculty submit data concerning the placements of former graduate students (and postdocs) as part of their grant application. No reporting, no funding.

3  Put more resources into training grants and fewer into graduate research assistantships.

4  Encourage the creation of more research institutes, thereby separating at least some of the research performed in the non-profit sector from training. While effective training requires research, effective research does not require training. And abstinence is the most effective form of birth control!

5  Decrease the importance of metrics (such as citation counts and h-indexes) in hiring and promotion decisions as well as in evaluating applicants for grants. NSF, I think, has this right: applicants can only list the five most relevant publications on the bio that accompanies their application and five “other significant” publications. Departments and universities should do the same.

[What] we aren’t measuring is the REPLICATION rate of scientific work by scientists. We aren’t measuring it, nor are we publishing it widely.

Would that really be so hard?

  1. The previous three posts to which this can be added can be found here.
This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Overton window – Overton juggernaut Science edition: Part 4

  1. Nicholas
    ‘ what are we ( not) talking about’
    is mostly, really a
    ‘which is to be master– that’s all’, question.

    Dominance is a powerful instinct and dominance is both, easier to understand and to determine ,than the intricacies and merits of various policy options, no?

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’m not sure what your point is John.

    • derrida derider says:

      What he’s saying is that the Overton window is there only to enhance the view from the boss’ office. That in fact is the point of becoming a boss. It’s just the old Thrasymachus talking.

    • Nicholas
      I wasn’t thinking about the Science aspect of your article.
      Was thinking about “window”- whats in and whats outside the frame, which is a metaphor for ‘definition’ and therefore its also about power. (hence the ref to Lewis Carol and Humpty Dumpty ).
      I was thinking about my own experience of the, out of all proportion, unquenchable, anger-fear reactions that even suggesting ‘lets think about things differently’ can engender in the dominants of the dominated of a group.

      Not really surprised that many political leaders instinctively shy away from ‘moving the window’ unless they really have no choice. Easier to let sleeping dogs lie.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Well there’s no surprise that the Overton window is alive and well regarding things that challenge existing interests.

        My argument is that a great deal of the makeup of the window is just arbitrary and reflects nothing more than the intellectual laziness of the cool kids.

        If one of the cool kids starts talking about something that they’ve ignored for decades and then a few more people mention it, they’ll be all over it.

        • The Overton window seems to involve a degree of visceral and or moral-judgement qualities to its terminology for example: “unthinkable” or taboo.

          Cool t by definition involves a desire to be part of the in-crowd. Cool and uncool, is close to the ‘why’ of the mysterious ins and outs of fashion.
          I have been making and selling things that have virtually no utilitarian value for decades, in an market that can be quite arbitrary . The older I get the question: why do things go from ‘what’ to “all over it” (and vice versa)? gets ever more mysterious to me.

          Perhaps it doesn’t always have to have an explanation? Maybe its analogous to the random oscillation of a chaotic system jumping around some kind of strange attractor ?

    • My other thought was controlling the window frame, whats not in it,
      is probably more instinctive and more rewarding , than trying to develop a nuanced understanding of a complex policy issue.

  3. Phil Clark says:

    I read the previous post’s and the idea, I think, is that there is a spectrum of acceptance from which decisions can be made. But if we followed this spectrum would women have the vote, would our indigenous people be citizens. Surely this is a gauge only and one that needs be challenged as we progress, gay marriage, free speech, personal information privacy and control are all good examples of moral imperatives that may not fit within the “Window”. I love science so I don’t care about the economics as the return in investment, in my opinion, is critical to our literal survival as a species. Awesome picture, the guy standing on the bottom looks very pleased with himself, is it CERN during construction?

  4. andrew_m says:

    Returning to the Stephan piece:

    * her points 1 & 2 are seeking an outcome that isn’t necessarily beneficial. It assumes that the only useful career path for PhDs is a lifetime in research, and this ain’t necessarily so. (This is, of course, just another manifestation of the multiple-career working life.) From what I am seeing, the current cohorts of young researchers are getting the message about the career filters ahead of them and are increasingly taking steps to broaden their options.

    * I see that HDR funding in Australia has just been shifted from training grants to graduate research assistantships! The former Australian Postgraduate Award was, formally speaking, a training grant; it was awarded to the student, not the university. In practice the need to acquire a supervisor pushed it toward the latter; but students could, and did, take their APAs elsewhere if things go poorly. The new RTP scholarships are awarded by the universities out of a block grant.

    * Implementing a shift in the research institute:university balance is straightforward in the Australian context, because we already have a multi-purpose institute called the CSIRO.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Andrew,

    On your first point, without disagreeing with you, it seems to me there’s a more fundamental point.

    It seems to me the PhD is a case of a ‘standard’ having arisen in a different context just running on and on like the tap in the children’s story the Masters Apprentice.

    I think it would be better to mostly do away with PhDs and perhaps allow people to qualify for one based on some substantial research project that demonstrated sufficient mastery.

    • conrad says:

      Nick — you already have the latter of these now — it’s called PhD by publication, and it is probably becoming the new standard.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Fine, but the whole business of assuming that you keep doing degrees, all of prearranged length until you’ve finished a PhD and a post-doc or two before you’re ‘ready’ in academia seems silly to me.

    • conrad says:

      The basic problem is that the entire spectrum of university learning got watered down across the last few decades, and so in many areas, to get skilled enough so you can compete scientifically with other people, you really do need a post-doc or two. This is especially so for PhD students who are no more than a cog in someone else’s research program in a big lab, and have most things done for them. You would be surprised how many PhD graduates can’t even do simple stuff in R, Python or Matlab (most in my many areas) — they basically learn how to use click-the-button packages in a few areas and that’s enough to get their PhD.

      Also, I don’t know if any data exists, but I am willing to bet that at least in the last decade or so, those people who have got academic jobs without doing a post-doc would have got essentially nowhere compared to those that did. So it really does make a big difference.

  7. Anthony Park says:

    Hi Nicholas,

    I’m a bit late to comment on this one. Could you clarify point #4? With separating out training by making more institutes, do you mean those institutes would not train Undergraduates? Or that Institutes should not be offering post-graduate courses?

    My own institute is located on a university campus and takes both graduate and undergraduate research students. There is a degree of separation (we don’t teach undergraduate courses). While the rent to be here isn’t cheap, the network effects and access to cool toys and platform technology would make moving off campus a terrifying prospect.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for your comment. Alas I can’t explain as all I was doing was quoting someone else. I wasn’t endorsing the suggestions myself as I don’t know enough to do that – and I expect context would be everything in interpreting them. I was using the list not as a series of prompts that should necessarily be followed in all cases, but rather for illustrative purposes.

    In my experience debate about our institutions goes on and on about lots of external things – very often associated with how much funding they get – and very little else. Meanwhile the institutions themselves remain remarkably impervious to transformation. Educational institutions seem to me to provide a classic case of that – at pretty much all levels.

    Whether the list I supplied from someone else’s work is apposite and in what circumstances, I don’t know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.