Come closer. What I’m about to tell you is privileged information. No seriously. Closer still. *conspiratorial whisper* The government controls the science you get to know about.
Is this a surprise to anyone? It could be. Right now my country (that’s the USA) is going through some……concerning times with regard to research and science. I say “concerning” because almost no matter what your personal politics, you probably have the same thought on a regular basis: “The government is censoring the science that i like – pulling its funding, never letting the results see the light of day, and generally behaving like a great big….. Big….. Brother. And stuff.” So is it true? Regardless of the science you “like” and would like to see pursued, can the government just shut down and deny science? And the answer is…..well, yeah. Kinda. I’m getting a little ahead of myself though, so let me explain with a personal example. I may be changing a few names around to protect the….me. But apart from that, this is what happened:
I’m the author of a banned book.
Well, okay, I’m the co-author of a banned book.
Most technically, I’m the co-author of a banned textbook.
Okay, put down the pitchforks and angry tweets for a moment and let me explain. I didn’t have the audacity to try to teach evolution to Texas, nor am I the leader of a communist cell inside a liberal arts college. I’m a plain old computational physicist. And around a decade ago I was a plain old computational physicist working at one of our nation’s wonderful Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC’s). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federally_funded_research_and_development_centers). Whether you know it or not, you love these places. These are places like Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Big names like The Jet Propulsion Lab and Lawrence Livermore. Dorks in lab coats. The Manhattan Project. Reactors! Killer viruses! This is where the magic happens!
And part of that “magic” comes from those first two “F’s” at the beginning. Federally Funded. We couldn’t keep the lights on without someone bankrolling all the flying saucers. And it sure sounds like someone providing the funding gets to call the shots, right? But then… the government of the USA is designed to serve the people, and science is pretty clearly an apolitical affair, delving into the unknown and refining hypotheses into strong theories that can drive engineering efforts and bring us all a better life. Isn’t it?
Well….generally yeah, it is. So how does a banned book happen in this wonderful “apolitical” world? It all starts with the funding and publication cycle. You see, when you do government-funded research, you tend to be one of two sorts of people (well, three if you count small businesses). The first are university professors – these tireless people work around the clock for relatively small salaries and have angry students pounding on their door at every hour of the day. The real upside is that at some point you get “tenure” and can then go around flashing your intellectual, emotional, and in some cases physical junk at everyone and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it. Yee-haw. Oh, and then there’s some weirdos that just love teaching the next generation of scientists. Either way, these folks have a saying, “publish or perish.” To show that you’re a valuable asset means publishing research papers, and to get the results for those papers you need to do research, which in turn means groveling for funding, generally to the government. On the other hand, when you get this funding (and you’re an academic), you usually get it in the form of a grant, meaning that it’s….well, granted to you. Technically, you don’t have to produce results with it. You don’t have to make papers from those results, you don’t have to do much of anything but cash the check and pay yourself. A lab full of beer and hot tubs is optional, but not recommended if you want to keep having a career. But in the same breath, there’s little they can do to stop you from doing whatever you want, including publication.
That sounds good, science as it should be, right? With the science-funder getting what they paid for: truly unbiased results, free of anyone’s finger on the scales of truth, free of anyone’s entire arm using researchers as sock-puppets to bless their baseless convictions. But then….what if you produce results that the funding agency doesn’t like? They could just not fund your research anymore if they don’t like it or the results you expect. So here we have the first and hardest to measure “lever of control” the funders have – they could, and do, just stop funding things they don’t like the sound of.
But wait – remember I said 2 groups of people, and promised tales of a banned book? Well, the other folks are those at FFRDC’s – rather than grants, people at your national laboratories work on contracts, and those come with all sorts of stipulations on the money. In this case, the relevant one is the right of the funding agency to review anything prior to release. While this has important positive reasons (not wanting to reveal things that could be detrimental to public safety or national security, for example), it also allows an effective “science veto” that government offices have after results come out. Under contracts, the funding agency didn’t just pay for the results, they completely own them, and can deny publication.
In my case though, the book in question didn’t contain nationally sensitive or potentially controversial material. A well-known colleague in the field (let’s call him Buford Stevenson, not his real name) got a bunch of us together and each of us wrote a chapter for a textbook (let’s call it “Toward A Better Optimization Order”). Each of us worked off and on for a couple of months, gradually making good and informative chapters about the subject. Or so I can say with impunity, now that you’ll never be able to read it.
As is usually done before anything gets published, BS called the funding agency that had been handling most of our work (let’s call them the Internal Reviewers of American Technical Enterprise) and asked for an okay to publish. He got a verbal “yes,” but from someone who unbeknownst to BS, would neglect to write it down anywhere and would then leave IRATE a few months later. So we went ahead, codifying the chapters into a book, finding a publisher, an ISBN, getting a first printing, shipping to bookstores, the whole nine yards. I was proud to find a first-print hardcopy in my office one Friday, with a note of congratulations as one of the co-authors.
And very surprised indeed to get a less-congratulatory note the following Monday demanding that every copy be returned to be destroyed. See, we’d dotted all the I’s with TABOO, and crossed almost every T. Nothing in it was classified, and everything in keeping with IRATE’s stated mission. But… sometime soon after publication, someone called up the head of IRATE to congratulate them on funding a successful book. And the response was “……what book?” I imagine his head kind of….spinning around and steam shooting out of his ears with one of those train-whistle sounds at this point, but I wasn’t there.
We had violated their right of review and refusal, and this was unthinkable. So, IRATE called BS. They called my organization. They called everyone and proceeded to yell until we recalled everything. Every copy sold to a bookstore was bought back, every first print was taken back, every copy that had managed to leak onto the internet or Ebay within the first week was bought and reclaimed regardless of cost. For all I know they burned them in a ceremonial bonfire. Or maybe they’re stored next to the Ark of the Covenant in some infinite government warehouse. Either way, it was technically IRATE’s right to do that, as well as their right to stop all publication of any kind for years thereafter – and they did just that. Money went in, but public science didn’t come out – results were to be sent only to them and used for their purposes. Don’t worry, it wasn’t exactly anti-gravity we were working on, you probably aren’t missing out on having a working hoverboard because the TABOO book got banned. But then again, that was one small example, and it didn’t even require true politics, just one bad miscommunication. So for all we know, that hoverboard might be spinning around in an empty bunker somewhere, never to see the light of day…
If you’ve read this far, well, first of all thank you. But second, this isn’t intended to be depressing or an indictment of the way government politics operate. It’s intended to show the potential power of a system gone awry, and make it clear that we have a responsibility to keep demanding scientific knowledge and results. Does the government control the science you get to know about? In many ways, yes. Does it abuse that power and keep results from you, or actively shut down research it doesn’t want to hear about? The answer is…..I hope not. I want to believe that on average, science is funded because it’s important to the whole species, and the results are made available as much as possible for those same reasons. Is that a pipe dream? I honestly don’t think so. In most ways, the folks funding science understand they have a mandate to look in all the corners and follow everything that looks like it holds answers, even where those answers might be uncomfortable.
But if you want it to stay that way, then be aware of the power they do hold, and the ways that power could be used against good science if no one says anything. So know, and say something. And thanks.