Christopher Newfield, “Risky Business: Why Public Is Losing to Private in American Research”

Newfield here explores how narratives of public funding function within public and political spheres, while at the same time analyzing the role that public funding plays in technological innovation networks. He articulates the interplay between the two and tracks changes in each over the past thirty years through his own narrative device: a multi-generational extension of the central narrative of the 1983 film “Risky Business.” Newfield begins with an analysis of the film itself, noting that it provides a snapshot of the political, economic, and educational zeitgeist of the early ’80s, as well as a popular hero narrative appropriate to that milieu: Joel (Tom Cruise), subordinates pleasure to work and sees future (economic) success as tied to his avoidance of the public university and acceptance in the Ivy League. He achieves this not through studying but through private enterprise (transforming his parents’ home into a whorehouse).

Twenty-four years later, Joel’s hypothetical daughter reads a Business Week article, extensively quoted by Newfield, detailing a widening funding rift between the “Ivy-Plus” universities and their public counterparts. Public universities have seen their budgets shrink decade-by-decade, while the Ivy-Plus’ have seen their endowments soar. Joel imagines that public universities could be saved by private-sector heroes: namely philanthropists and corporations paying for scientific and technological research. Newfield notes that philanthropy accounts for a negligible steam of income for public universities, and more startlingly, debunks the myth that research supported by private industry and federal grants actually makes money for private universities. In fact these grants almost never cover the full costs of the research for which they are alloted (when one considers both direct and indirect research costs), and usually cover a very small percentage. Extramural research, then, loses money for public universities. The loss is paid by the public, and yet the public is never included in R&D narratives. Instead, the discourse surrounding funding for scientific research implies that public money isn’t contributing much at all to important innovation in science and technology.

Newfield implies that this lack of a narrative role leads the public to believe that it isn’t doing anything and need not do anything, leading to increasing budget cuts for public universities. This narrative void holds at all levels: Newfield notes that should our hypothetical concerned citizen attempt to discover the role that public funding plays in, say, nanotechnology research, he would find only vague, cut-and-paste information from publicly-accessible sources such as DARPA’s web site. The public has been written out of the narrative, at the expense of the larger public, not only as the potential beneficiaries of the research itself, but through the decline in quality of the education of 75% of college students. The only solution is to bring the role of the public back into our larger narrative of innovation and the public good.


Link to Article


Christopher Newfield elaborates on transparency and public narratives in nanotechnology research, specifically in relation to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in “Avoiding Network Failure: The Case of the National Nanotechnology Initiative

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