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.
Buying beliefs?
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.

Posted on October 16, 2005, in Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Science Politics And Policy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Only just noticed this article. One or two points need to be made.
    If anyone is rich enough to fund a university then whether or not he believes in ID he can’t be that irrational – irrational people don’t normally get rich. But if they are irrational then irrationality may be no bad thing. (Of course ‘rationalists’ can always fund their own universities as I’m sure they do. Or do you believe that all universities are rejecting ‘rationality’ just as you seem to believe that all scientists downed tools when ID was proposed)?
    No, ID is not akin to creationism in that IDists believe that life on Earth has developed in the last few thousand years. (Not sure that all Creationists do either). And my memory is a bit hazy here but I think you’ll find that ID does not necessarily imply a designer – just that evolution has the characteristics of intellgent design.
    Why don’t other scientists speak out about it? Oliver Heaviside may have had something to say on this.
    ‘Similarly (ID) is not easy to conceive . . . .We may know someday. But if not, what matter? Things will go on all the same whether we know how it is done or not. What vanity is this the philosophers are striving after? Is it not ‘Science falsely so called’, when there is the infinite blank of the unknowable behind’?
    Sorry but this has not been peer reviewed.

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