In a new paper, Maximilian Fochler conducted a series of structured interviews with scientists to make an STS point: when we think of capitalism as a system that depends on “accumulation,” there are many different kinds of things that one can accumulate, many of them non-financial. I think Fochler makes an important point, but I also think it should be pushed in a somewhat different, more critical direction.
First, though, the results of the interviews. Fochler interviewed both academic and non-academic scientists in Austria. On the academic side, he looked at those in charge of labs, and the post-docs who do most of the actual bench science. Both are engaged in a race to accumulate. The leaders have to produce peer-reviewed publications in order to get grants, which they need to then get more peer-reviewed publications (Fochler’s interview subjects were Austrian, but it should be noted that in this country, many of those scientists have to get grants to cover their salary. No grant, no paycheck). The post-docs are in perhaps the most dire situation: there are a lot more post-docs than there are positions for them, and so they have to engage in a competitive race to accumulate publications as well, in order to continue in their careers (or as Becker would say, adding a polite veneer, “invest in their human capital”), either by extending their current position or gaining another one. Adding to the stress, postdoc positions typically last 2-3 years, which is not enough time to accumulate a significant publication record (I will leave it to readers to draw the connections between this situation and that faced by the humanities precariat).
On the corporate side, we find the CEO’s of start-ups trying to generate peer-reviewed publications, positive lab results, and other indicia that their particular research program – and its endpoint product – is worthy of continued venture capital funding, with the goal of (eventually) selling the start-up to a larger pharmaceutical company. Since the scientific process apparently takes about 10 years, and the VC funding cycle is two or three years, this is a continuous worry. The scientists, on the other hand, much to their surprise (and mine, as I read the paper) work in a collaborative, non-competitive environment. This is because successes and failures are attributable to the entire company. Of course, the downside of this is that these scientists don’t accumulate anything they can use to parlay into their next job.
The simple point I would like to add is that, despite all of the accumulation, no one is making any real money. Not the post-docs, especially, though a move into to a faculty position adds some salary and a little job security, but also adds to the need to publish. The CEO’s and employees of the start-ups aren’t likely to get rich either: 90% of start-ups fail generally; pharmaceuticals don’t do that much better; and one study reported that “97% of drugs in preclinical tests never make it to market, and nor do 95% of the molecules in phase 1 clinical trials and 88% of molecules in phase 2. Not until phase 3 do their prospects get much better: Of the ones that make it that far, 56% are approved” (summative quote from here).
Who does make real money on this arrangement? Venture capitalists who invest in the right companies, and the shareholders and executives of Pharma. And, of course, the companies that produce the journals. In other words, as we think about the many ways that science as it is currently practiced is, in Phillip Mirowski’s terms, a Science Mart, we should pay careful attention to the ways that the research and discovery process is substantially financialized. And it isn’t just that funding involves venture capital and angel investors, it’s that the process provides substantial confirmation of Katherine Strandburg’s observation of the enormous pressure on homo scientificus to re-subjectify as homo economicus. As David Harvey says, neoliberalism is the financialization of everything, and Fochler’s interviewees underscore that this includes the subjectivity of scientists.
Of course these conditions affect the science produced: Fochler’s interviewees spoke of the pressure to publish a lot of low-quality papers, rather than to produce a few good ones. In his indictment of Contract Research Organizations (to which clinical trials are generally outsourced), Mirowksi emphasizes the pressures on these organizations to produce favorable evidence is responsible for the large-scale production of fraudulent science: Australian litigation discovered that every issue of at least six entire journals published by Elsevier was ghostwritten (Science Mart, 245); non-favorable results are suppressed. So much for evidence-based medicine.
There is a larger truth about neoliberal capital, I think, that should be spelled out, because it’s not one that I had seen clearly prior to reading Fochler’s paper. As he emphasizes, there are indefinitely many things that one might be compelled to accumulate while still fundamentally adhering to a capitalist logic of accumulation, and to the cut-throat competition (Foucault: “The society … that the neo-liberals are thinking about is a society in which the regulatory principle should not be so much the exchange of commodities as the mechanisms of competition. It is these mechanisms that should have the greatest possible surface and depth and should also occupy the greatest possible volume in society” (Birth of Biopolitics, 147)) that neoliberalism demands of everyone. But this very diversity of what counts as a good to accumulate also enables a stratification of workers by status. Everyone is assigned the task of accumulation, but lower status workers don’t get to accumulate money; they are tracked into non-remunerative accumulation that makes it easier for someone higher up the food chain to accumulate the real money. Feminists will immediately recognize this as iterating the classic definition of women’s work: non-remunerated, but its product (clean children and house, freshly starched shirts for the man to take to the office) is both measurable and fungible (in other words, one knows what a “good wife” produces), and enabling remunerated work by others.
The process also resembles, in some ways, the accumulation process in big data, at least as I understand it, which involves both the elevation of exchange value over use value, and the conversion of qualitatively different items of data into commensurable units of information. In the case of scientific regimes of accumulation, the work of science is interpreted in terms of its exchange value. This is why bench science, or science as knowledge-driven, is devalued. On the one hand, Fochler cites a forced preference for many mediocre journal articles over one good one: the journal article represents a basic unit of fungibility, and it is one to which standard metrics of value, like journal impact factor and citation counts, can be applied. A good article may be more useful, but several mediocre ones have a much higher exchange value. On the other hand, Fochler’s interviewees – even the lab leaders and CEO’s – were under tremendous pressure to produce quantifiable indicia of success, not because those indicia actually pointed to success, or made sick people healthy again, but because they signaled a positive ROI or indicated that funding the scientist generated results. And, of course, the endpoint, however few people reach it, is not scientific, but pecuniary: the sale of the company to a bigger company (admittedly, for a large pile of money). Commensurability occurs when the many details of laboratory life are reduced to an impact factor.
However, and this is Fochler’s contribution, it’s important to see that these components of primitive accumulation are diverse. They thus serve to put lower-status workers (post-docs in the hard sciences!) into the position of trying to accumulate something which does not, in itself, produce exchange value except in the space to which they have been consigned: real exchange value – the “M” in the M-C-M’ circuit – occurs only after the messy scientific process is rendered into fungible product, and that occurs only after lab scientists, willingly or not, compete to accumulate something different.