Mirowski, ‘Science-Mart’ – reading notes

April 1, 2018

Some quick notes on Mirowski’s ‘Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science’. This is a wide-ranging semi-popular book about neoliberal governance of US science, with different chapters addressing different elements of the topic. These include:

– a very critical survey of the economics of science;
– periodisation of twentieth and twenty-first century US science governance into three regimes: the ‘captains of erudition’ regime in which the modern research laboratory developed; the ‘cold war’ regime in which the state greatly increased both its funding and its control of scientific production; and the ‘neoliberal’ regime characterised by privatisation of the research process and greater ‘enclosure’ of scientific inputs and outputs in intellectual property law;
– a discussion of material transfer agreements and the constraints they place on researchers;
– a critique of biotech – and, more broadly, commercialised science – as a ‘Ponzi scheme’ in which very few companies are, in fact, commercially viable;
– an argument that the quality of scientific research outputs is declining as a result of the neoliberalisation of science;
– a discussion of a range of different ways in which the neoliberal regime produces ignorance, rather than knowledge (such as the ghostwriting of apparently independent research papers by employees of pharmaceutical companies, for example).

All up the book is a concerted attack on ‘neoliberal science’, and connects to Mirowski’s critiques of other dimensions of neoliberal economic governance, in other works.

My take, fwiw: some of the book provides a good entry into important issues in the political economy of science, and Mirowski’s periodisation seems like a useful way to carve up both the political and the intellectual history of US science governance. Mirowski’s discussion of the deliberate creation of systematic bias in the scientific literature is good as far as it goes – though I’d recommend Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Pharma’ as a popular work focussed specifically on this issue. However, I think Mirowski’s book as a whole should be approached with some caution.

It’s possible I have the wrong end of the stick, but it seems to me that Mirowski’s critique of biotech as a ‘Ponzi scheme’ is based on a misunderstanding: in a speculative industry many companies can fail because the investment gambles they take do not pay off in the creation of a marketable product. This fact enables fraudsters to make money off the industry, because a straight-up fraud is from a distance indistinguishable from a bad but rational bet – so significant segments of a speculative industry based on product innovation will, typically, be actual scams. Nevertheless, provided the few success stories are profitable enough, the industry as a whole can be fulfilling the capitalist social function of profit generation just fine – and the rent-seeking associated with intellectual property monopolies over medical goods means that successful medical innovations are indeed often extremely profitable.

Mirowski also seems to me to sometimes be unreliable as a summariser of the intellectual figures (mostly economists) that he discusses. Mirowski is critical of economists who advocate for neoliberal policies (privatisation, expanded intellectual property rights, etc.); but he is also critical of economists who oppose these policies, on the grounds that – as economists – they are tacitly supporting the same policies regardless, by virtue of their use of ‘neoclassical’ economic theory. So, for example, Paul David (an advocate of open science, who engages heavily with intellectual resources outside economics, and who has also developed models of scientific research dynamics that do not make use of the ‘rational actor’ approaches Mirowski elsewhere criticises) is nevertheless for Mirowski as much a participant in the neoliberalisation of science as those advocating neoliberal policies, by virtue of him using game theoretic and other ‘neoclassical’ modelling tools. Social scientists can of course be criticised for tacit implications of their approaches which contradict their stated policy goals. But Mirowski’s broad brush dismissal of economics of science as a whole seems excessive, to me.

At some point maybe I’ll write something on Mirowski’s criticisms of neoliberalism more broadly – my thoughts on this issue don’t feel quite nailed down enough, yet – but I wanted to put up these very brief notes on Science-Mart now, before it all goes down the memory hole.


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