I blogged last week about my new research project with Native American bio-scientists who explicitly situate themselves within histories of marginization from the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and within histories of oppression more generally. This leads them to more sophisticated understandings of the role of the technosciences historically in colonial projects. They tend not to be under the illusion that there are hard lines between scientific knowledge production and politics. They give me hope that the STEM fields in which they participate can be made more multicultural and democratic.
I noted in that same blog the testimony of my own colleague, an environmental scientist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), Wayne Getz, who witnessed the violence perpetrated against UC Berkeley students by the Alameda County Police Department. I do social studies of science and have been demoralized in the past by what I see as unreflective and problematic politics of race in the genome sciences. I’ve more recently begun to look for scientists who give me hope, who are conscious of the political histories of their fields or who clearly do not view their lab as a retreat from the messy, political world. I also know the work of explicitly feminist and anti-racist engineers and scientists who are clear about the relationship between diversifying who does science and changing science, folks who want to make their fields less hierarchical, less male dominated, and more class, race, and gender diverse. I am trying to be hopeful, and positively engaged.
However, I also notice that a disproportionate number of university administrators now come from the STEM fields, a sign of the growing power of those fields in the university, and the under-funding and marginlization of the social sciences and humanities. And I wonder if there is a link between the particular way that UC administrators are managing this difficult political situation and their immersion in technoscientific fields that explicitly de-link investigation of the nonhuman material world from society or “politics.” Do they come to their positions ignorant of, or even allergic to, social issues and conflicts? Or is the problem not the administrators’ fields of origin, but rather the emphasis the university places on cultivating administrators who might be good at raising money to build hi-tech lab facilities (big science as the savior of the university and the national economy), but who have too little to offer us in terms of a deep social-historical perspective needed to manage a complex and highly politicized institution like a UC campus? Do they see us – faculty, students and staff – too much as a potential economic engine and too little as a diverse group of intellectuals and societal actors? Pehaps they are too busy linking the university to the big money that dominates the full range of institutions the students are protesting against. Is the problem the STEM fields broadly, or those particular individuals culled from within the STEM fields to run our university, as it is constituted in this moment in history? Witness Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi here, deep in political waters that are clearly over her head, departing the UC Davis campus yesterday after calling in police who abused the courageous young students she is supposedly there to serve. Katehi has all three degrees (B.S., M.S., and PhD) in electrical engineering. Our own Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, (B.S. in mathematics and Ph.D. in physics) recently characterized students linking arms as NOT non-violent protest. He thus appeared to justify the use of batons by police to assault students, and to ignore an important history of non-violent protest in the U.S. I believe he’s recently revisited that mistake.
In short, my question is, does the common, willful representation within STEM field cannons of their approaches as universal and therefore outside culture and politics have anything to do with the greater numbers of STEM faculty now swelling the administrations of universities, and then the particular political choices being made by such administrators that are helping to visit police violence on our students?