Would You Buy a Used Car From This Scientist? Not If You’re a Scientist!

Peter Calamai is Science Writer for the Toronto Star. He recently wrote about the demise of society’s trust in its scientists. He’s got a lot of statistics that ought to cause scientists great concern about the level of trust in scientists.

And, as he says:

After two days of provocative ideas and spirited exchanges at an international gathering recently in Toronto, British museum curator Robert Bud neatly summed up the collective wisdom.

"The scientists are terrified."

Calamai’s most cogent point may be this:

Scientists might ask themselves about the erosion of the traditional trust relationships among researchers, who once readily exchanged things like specialized strains of mice or reagents, custom chemicals used in experiments.

Increasingly such exchanges are now circumscribed by material transfer agreements, complex legal documents that spell out details like liability and indemnification, due diligence and standards for care. Some even feature "reach-through" clauses, guaranteeing the supplier of the materials a share in any subsequent commercialization because of subsequent research done elsewhere.

Use of these agreements is exploding. In 1998, the University of Toronto handled about 30. This year, +*officials have reviewed 170.  Similar growth at U.S. universities prompted this wry workshop comment from Notre Dame’s Mirowski: "Why should the public trust science when it is becoming apparent that scientists less and less trust each other?"

Why indeed.

Let’s break this down. There’s a bigger trend going on here—two, actually.

One trend is the fragmentation of big things into little modules. The other is the re-connection of modules into big things again.

Take business processes. Companies used to have HR departments. Now they have many specific HR sub-processes, which can be outsourced, which in turn requires standardization. Big things broken into little; little things reconfigured into big. Now companies can configure their own HR departments.

Take music. The record business used to record artists on vinyl and sell the product through physical stores. Now artists, recording, and marketing are going off in dozens of directions. A big business broken into little parts; little parts reconfiguring into dozens of designs.

Take software, movies, travel, training, banking. All used to be made of monolithic structures. All can now be configured in myriad ways.

But here’s the catch. The main way we reconfigure modules in the world is by contract, in some kind of market.

That means transactions. That means costs, complexity, and lawyers. It means every little module has to be priced, defined, tracked, and contracted.

The trend has hit absurd levels in many places by now.

• How many levels of automated phone answering software can you stand before exploding?
• Sampling of a half-second of music is subject to copyright law so we can write royalty checks to dozens of people from thousands of users;
• And now scientists don’t share because we need to prospectively track the rights to thinks that might be invented in the future.

This is what happens when a new technical/organizational reality meets an outmoded ideology.

The new reality is the ability to connect everything and everyone to everything and everyone else.

The outmoded ideology is the idea that everything is property—and is therefore definable, trackable, assignable and salable.

Put those two together, and something’s got to give. Eventually, it will be the outmoded ideology that gives. The question is, how long will the forces of resistance hold it back?

How long can we live with outmoded laws governing intellectual property, water rights and patents?

How long can we put up with outmoded business models that define relationships by boundaries rather than by bonds?

How long can we live with corporate and social governance models that can’t figure out how to make individuals accountable to the public good, and present generations accountable to their heirs?

Chief Seattle, in 1854, supposedly said, “The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.”

With a little updating, that’s exactly the thinking we need. The more complicated and topheavy the contract/ownership model gets, the more economically superior becomes a model based on trust and mutual interests.

Flaky? Not at all. Read, for example, a Nobel Prize economist’s lecture here, or read a Harvard Business Review article here.

Trust is not flaky, it is commonsense. It’s just not common. Yet.

4 replies
  1. Carl Isenburg
    Carl Isenburg says:

    I absolutely agree with your identification of the break-it-up-then-try-to-put-it-back-together trend.

    To use your HR example:  We used to trust that our HR department was working as part of our businesses with the same goals that we have.  Now that it’s disintegrated and parceled out to various service providers, we can’t trust them anymore; our interests and their interests are neither identical nor aligned.  In fact, the one thing I *can* trust is that my service providers have different goals than I do.


    It may be a secondary effect, or it may be an intermediary effect, but the loss of context has a significant impact on trust, too.  The provider for X-portion of my HR process has no context for the overall business process, so they lack the ability to intuitively provide what the business needs.  The providers’ sole source of business context is a set of documents and/or a contract.  This is simply not enough context to be a valuable part of any business function.

  2. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Carl, I think your HR example is a brilliant one. As you put it, not only does "the loss of context have a significant impact on trust," but therefore they "lack the ability to intuitively provide what the business needs."

    Put another way, we are increasingly operating under a belief system that says "if you deconstruct it, you can reconstruct it." It reminds me of these hugely detailed photographs of famous masterpiece paintings. You can’t tell the difference between The Last Supper original and the photograph.

    But does that mean anyone could now pick up a brush and repeat Da Vinci’s handiwork? No way.

    A synthesizer can perfectly mimic a brilliant violin by a world-class performer–if someone else had deconstructed the definition of "world-class" bowing technique and you could take an eon to tweak a thousand nobs. Or, you could learn to play violin and develop a sense of music.

    Like digitization, disassembly and reassembly has its place, and a very valuable role to play. But–absent context–no one can intuit what to do in a new situation unless it’s already been programmed in. Hard enough to do in chess–absurdly difficult in the larger game called "life."

  3. Renata
    Renata says:

    Great news! you article was accepted for our Natural Science Carnival! Visit the Carnival here and don’t forget to comment, link back, spread the word!


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