Enough thinking, time to write.

Posted by Michael on January 13, 2013

By Allison Marsh

From the outside, it may look like I am a chronic procrastinator.  After all, I blew both the deadline for this blog and the deadline for our first draft of the article.  But procrastination is not quite right.  I’ve been working away on the project.  Unfortunately, I’ve gotten too caught up in the “thinking” part of the project, which delayed the “writing” part of the project, which means I never quite get to the “publishing” part.  I doubt I am alone in this dilemma.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about two different problems: the problem of celebrating anniversaries and the problem of science as a catchall category.  I doubt any of the writers of this group would see either of these even as bumps in the road, let alone a debilitating problem, so I thought I would use this blog to voice my thought process in the hope of writing my way out of circular thinking.

First, the problem of anniversaries.  Most people love anniversaries.  If the anniversary is divisible by 10, or even better 25, PR folks get on the bandwagon designing marketing campaigns.  A silver anniversary, a diamond jubilee, a fabulous way to spin a story.

Historians hate anniversaries.  They are arbitrary markers of time.  What is significant about a nice round number?  I have a friend, a curator at the Smithsonian, who avoids anniversary exhibits on principle.  He rails against what he calls “the tyranny of chronology!” 

Chronology is the great simplifier of history. Since middle school we have been taught to organize events into neat, evenly demarcated timelines.  But this perceived linearity belies the true messiness of history.  Timelines imply a causality that doesn’t always exist. 

Professional historians spend their time complicating timelines. They try to put multiple voices in conversation with each other. Even if events happen in a certain order, it doesn’t mean that the people involved knew when things happened.  History is as much about fact as it is about perspective.  

Second, the problem of science.  I am also struggling with the notion of science as a single entity.  Not since the 19th century has science existed as a field, and even then you could argue there was no such thing as science.  Science is a catchword for numerous disciplines, each with their own direction.  Physics, chemistry, and biology are only three of many big umbrella groups, but even within each category there is tremendous variety.  For example, particle physicists and astrophysicists do completely different things.  To call all scientific pursuits “science” is an oversimplification that flattens the variations within and among fields.

If science doesn’t really exist except as an abstract through, how can we talk about a particular science policy issue, such as funding?  Just as there is no single science, there is no single source of funding for science within the federal government.  Scientists can seek funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Energy, among other agencies.

I keep getting caught up in all of the differences I see in the big tent of science.  My academic training stresses the close analysis of details.  I am struggling to make the leap to generalize science.

So why have I been thinking so much about anniversaries and the nature of science? 

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the cancelation of funding of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).  20 years, a nice round number; the SSC, a nice alliterative acronym.  What can either do to help us think about science policy today?

Historians may hate anniversaries, but we won’t deny their usefulness.  They have great symbolic value.  They give you an excuse to pause and reflect. Similarly, the SSC is a compelling story, a great hook to grab a reader.  Together, the SSC and its 20th anniversary are convenient shorthand for a set of circumstances that point to a seismic shift in the structure of science funding. 

I am not entirely convinced that the failure of the SSC is the catalytic event for science funding, but I think the story has elements that point to changes already in place.  The story can be used to discuss a core transition of science policy that showcases the changing scale of science (from small labs to international collaboration).  

The SSC can also be used to show changes in perceptions of science in the public sphere.  Thanks to the rise in 24-hour media coverage and internet access, there are no more quiet spaces for politicians and scientists to discuss their needs and wants.  Science funding may have always been politicized, but the very public story of the SSC shows how the media and the activist public have changed the playing field.

My personal challenge is how to write an interesting storyline that interweaves scenes and substance without diminishing my own disciplinary standards. I am not comfortable with the storyteller’s conceits of composite characters and compression of time.  I think the individual details and distinctions matter.

That’s why I am still struggling with the thinking part of the project, and that’s why it is taking me so long to write.  I hope my writing partner can help dig me out of the details.