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).