US Universities, Privatisation And ‘Intelligent Design’
Universities in the USA are increasingly funded by private interests. This has already raised curriculum concerns, especially for instance about ideas such as ‘Intelligent Design’. Anything which is at base an attack on scientific method and, indeed, rationality, should be watched very carefully indeed.
Public funding of universities in the USA has fallen further since 2001 than at any other time in the past two decades, according to the New York Times today (74% in 1991, 64% in 2004). Some university presidents are therefore becoming vocal in their concerns about ‘public higher education’s slow slide toward privatisation’.
The concern is in part that private funders set an agenda not always in tune with public universities’ wishes. These centre on teaching, autonomy in research and time spent securing private funding.
Could this be a particular problem in the context of so-called Intelligent Design? This is the notion, akin to ‘creationism‘, that somehow the human race has emerged in just a few thousand years, after being ‘designed’ by… who? Yet this unlikely thesis – with absolutely no credible basis in evidence or scientific theory – is increasingly being pressed upon American schools, for inclusion in their curricula. Apparently this is to ‘balance’ Darwinian theories of evolution.
So what is the link with university funding? Well, presumably not all funders are scientifically well informed; such knowledge is by no means a necessary prerequisite of huge wealth or of a desire to influence what others know and learn.
Some observers of American science have wondered why more outstanding scientists do not speak out loud and clear about this attack – for such it is – on scientific method and, indeed, rationality. But the reason why seems clear: they don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to funding.
The price of academic autonomy
Never has there been a clearer case for academic autonomy, away from the beliefs of those who do not appreciate what sturdy, contestable peer review is all about. Peer scrutiny is not perfect – one is reminded of the slogan (was it Joseph Schumpeter’s?), ‘Two Cheers for Democracy!’ – but it is the best we can currently come up with, and all genuine universities need to continue to keep as far as possible from undue influence.
In the modern world of macro-economics not every bit of science can be influence-free. Creeping privatisation of public higher education is, however, one area where extreme caution is required.