Monday, December 17, 2007

The War on Terra is a racket, even some academicians are on the take

Just something I happened upon, while taking a break: On the take and loving it. Just as a number of behavioral and social scientists took grant money from the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, it appears that today's academicians are doing likewise by accepting grants from the NSA. This time around it seems to be engineering and mathematics that are the target. Why? Two words: mass surveillance. The government's ability to spy on its most feared enemy - that is its own citizens - makes what these particular researchers do quite valuable much in the same way that anthropology and psychology researchers were deemed valuable to a government wanting to stay ahead of the Soviets when it came to "enhanced interrogation".

An aside: One of my profs in grad school once stated point-blankly to me that "you have to be cut-throat" in order to succeed in the academic world. That statement applies more to the sorts of institutions that are most likely to be recipients of large research grants than to the smaller teaching colleges and universities thankfully. Still, for those unfamiliar with the academic world, one need keep in mind that it tends to be hyper-competitive to a degree unseen in most other areas of life. There is usually an over-supply of Ph.D.-level individuals and an under-supply of tenure track positions (caveat: depending on your particular academic discipline and specialty your mileage may vary considerably). There are plenty of highly talented scholarly individuals who spend years, and sometimes entire careers stringing together adjunct gigs. It is possible that there might be research positions available in government agencies and in the private sector - but even here, the pickings are going to be slim (the usual caveat that your mileage may vary depending upon your field). If one is gunning for a position at one of the larger universities, there is typically a lot of pressure to bring in grant money, and of course publish (or perish). I can easily imagine the temptation one might feel under the circumstances to accept grant funding from the Devil himself if it means having a better shot at making tenure. I'm guessing that many of these cats will never so much as ponder the potential abuses of human rights and liberty that may ultimately be the fruit of their labor, as long as they have job security.

I like the quote at the end of the article - with some caveats that I'll mention in a moment:
Educated, intelligent people have many opportunities in life. Those who out-source their minds to secretive and abusive organizations demonstrate to us either a lack of intellectual ability or an impoverished moral standard. They do not earn our respect as scholars or as human beings.
That first sentence is definitely right on the money - if you're in the academic world you're in a fairly privileged position. Heck, simply having the opportunity to study and research whatever the heck you want - and be paid to do so - is truly a blessing. With the second sentence, I suspect that it depends in part on how one defines intellectual ability. One can be a genius as a theoretician or methodologist (or both) but lack foresight, personal insight, street smarts, etc. It is fairly easy if one is not careful to lose sight of the forest for that one or two tree limbs one is dedicated to researching. To the extent that many scholars internalize a sort of Machiavellian ethics (as illustrated by that grad school prof I mentioned earlier, who lived being cut-throat to the fullest) I suspect that impoverished moral standards are endemic within the Ivory Tower. I completed my grad school work realizing that there were folks whose research I could respect (to the extent that at least they seemed to avoid taking blood money and who managed to contribute something useful with their work) but whom I could not respect on a more personal level. I made a decision early on in grad school that what was important wasn't the product as much as it was the process. How I went about my work, how I went about treating anyone assisting me in my work, etc., meant more than those coveted lines on a vita. No backstabbing, no moral compromising, just what you see is what you get. That probably closed the doors on some jobs I wouldn't have wanted, but also opened some doors to positions more in keeping with my calling. Wouldn't trade it for the world.

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