Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

Questions of Responsibility

Although recent events may have forced this issue on us, I believe that questions about censorship and freedom need to be addressed continuously. Our pictures of the boundaries between knowledge as the pursuit of curiosity for its own sake and knowledge as instrumental, cannot remain stable. New sites for the production and circulation of knowledge continue to emerge, as do new standards for what counts as evidence and what counts as proof. These are issues that Paul Rabinow has examined in depth in his work on science and modernity. [23] I draw on his work specifically with regard to the emergence of novelty as an aspect of both modernity and curiosity. I give below some excerpts of a conversation between Rabinow and Tom White, his main informant who was formally the vice-president of Cetus Corporation. It seems obvious from the conversation that though Tom White is an industrial scientist (as opposed to a university scientist), what seems to drive his science is intellectual curiosity rather than clear-cut demands of industry. [24]

PR: What role does curiosity play in science?

TW: To me curiosity is an extremely powerful motivating factor. YouPage  145 know, food, sex, shelter, and stuff like could call it instinct or gut level, but we don't know. Henry Erlich [a senior scientist at Cetus] will justify his work on diabetes [as having commercial potential], and that's the right thing to do, but he just wants to know about how the whole thing works. He doesn't give a damn about whatever else is involved in it.

PR: What are the limits to curiosity?

TW: Boredom. I have seen curiosity end for some scientists. When it does end it is totally recognizable element in them.

PR: So, curiosity can die and become routine and boredom. But what about the other side: can you have too much curiosity?

TW: Yes, some people are so curious that they never complete a thing.

PR: But modernity faces the question of what are the limits to curiosity? There were the German medical and scientific experiments and so many others in the United States and elsewhere, which obviously cross the line of acceptable research or clinical practice...Perhaps there are no self-limiting principles within science itself to tell you not to do a particular experiment? Since curiosity and modernity combine to drive endlessly toward producing something new, perhaps the combination of newness and curiosity's boundlessness is the problem?

I have myself found this point of view (viz. that science cannot itself provide ethical limits) echoed in interviews with many scientists. [25] Indeed, the emergence of such disciplines as bioethics; the routinization of IRB procedures in universities; and other related developments are indicative of the fact that we expect limits to curiosity to be provided by some independent standards for which we wish to hold society rather than science to be responsible. [26] Rabinow's work is extremely important in showing us that new sites for pursuing scientific research have emerged in the world that have vastly complicated our pictures of industry and university. What I miss in this rendering, however, is the manner in which the very real material demands without which science could not be done at all in its present mode, have changed the balance between private and public interests in the university itself.

In recent examination of the corporatization of American universities, Masao Miyoshi draws attention to the fervent search for project grants and license income in the top research universities. [27] The most important concern seems to me to stem less from some idealist notion about freedom of thought and morePage  146 from the fact that universities often end up by subsidizing the corporate world. One may argue that the university-industry alliance leads to enhanced public goods since without this alliance the transfer of research into usable products for the consumer either would not happen or happen at a very slow pace. Some would argue, Moyshi says, that: "The transfer of federally funded research result to industry, the conversion of non-profit scholarship to for-profit R & D might well be deemed justifiable on the grounds that inert federal funds are being used and activated by private developers for public benefits." However, he then goes on to show the traps and snares in this argument. Instead of offering wide-open access to federally funded research, he says, the close alliance between university and industry with the related emphasis on patenting delays the dissemination of information or restricts it in other ways. Second, the beneficiaries of the academic technological inventions ultimately turn out to be not consumers but corporations. In addition, I would argue that the models for research laid out in the sciences then begin to inform social science research (if not humanities) so that routine evaluation of faculty is increasingly based on the number of grants they have received, and the number of papers published, rather than an exercise of judgment regarding the quality of research. In addition, as Marlyn Strathern has argued, the audit cultures introduced in universities are often out of joint with the temporality of teaching and research. For Strathern, the process of learning is not one of consumption but one of absorption so that there must a lapse of time between what has been taught and what has been learnt. Similarly, she argues that time must be set aside for all the wasteful and dead-end activities that inevitably precede genuine findings—yet, there is no space made in audit cultures for these non-productive activities as essential to the life of the university. Again, it is not my case that research grants are not important for doing certain kind of research or that maintaining something like a long-term cohort study is even possible without funding—rather, I suggest that we need to pay very close attention to the balance between different kinds of curiosities in evaluating research of faculty. [28]

If one were emboldened to produce an ethnographic study on how the evaluation of scholarship in terms of research grants and license income alters the academic culture of the university, one could show the demoralization among faculty who want to work on risky subjects, when outcome cannot be easily predicted. The kind of curiosity driven research to which Tom WhitePage  147 was alluding in his discussion with Rabinow, has to be constantly justified to university administration in terms of its capacity to generate grants or license income for universities. This is where the long-term impact of the corporatization of the university may turn out to be even more pernicious than we have imagined. Having come to the United States from India, when I first encountered the directives issued to universities to provide privileged information on foreign students from Arab countries, I assumed that the major universities would simply refuse to comply. If indeed, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, California, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Columbia, or Michigan (among many others) would jointly refuse to obey the administrative directives that take away their own jurisdiction over their students, surely there would be some impact on the policies of the administration on these issues? It took me some time to realize that the weak and sporadic dissent perhaps represented that universities were so dependant for funding on federal grants and their prestige as research universities was so tied up with funding that opposition was not a simple matter of withdrawing consent. [29] I remember that many academics in India learnt that the state could run roughshod over democratic freedoms during the National Emergency in India in 1976 and now under the Hindutva agenda of the state in India. The experiences of many academics with censorship around the world, both under dictatorial regimes and democratic ones, should invite us to reconsider seriously how we can redefine the legitimate interests of the state that the university is expected to serve? How are these to be balanced with the pursuit of truth for its own sake? How are new standards of research, especially in the sciences, to be supported materially? Finally, what does it mean for the life of the university to be placed within these contradictory demands? The formulation suggested by Cohen, Kennedy, and Canning, that the university was of the world and in the world, requires a cold, dispassionate inquiry from many angles on the meaning of the university. A simple scenario of before and after with regard to September 11th would betray the seriousness of the crisis we are facing.