In the midst of the Vietnam War, American public intellectual and scientist Noam Chomsky wrote an essay titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Chomsky argued that intellectuals bear more responsibility than other citizens for actions committed by their state. This is because intellectuals have, in an academic setting, the privilege of access to more resources, more time to spend on reading and writing, and most importantly, the ability to critically think about what they read and hear.

This begs the question: to what extent are we, as students, responsible for the sociopolitical issues of today, and what types of actions must we take? To investigate our roles, we must first understand what these issues are and their origins.

Since the 1970s, a new world order has influenced the lifestyles of ordinary people through the ‘values’ it rewards and the ‘vices’ it punishes. This was largely due to the intensification of the hegemony of capitalist culture in today’s world following the introduction of neoliberal economic policies. Capitalist culture encourages the establishment of hierarchy and competition.

It appears as though the scientific community has also adopted the capitalist value structure, as academia and other scientific institutions encourage this ‘rise to the top’ mentality.

It would not be farfetched to claim that nowadays, what is most respected within the sciences, particularly among the non-scientific community, is not what has been discovered and how it has been achieved, but rather who has been awarded a prize and whose article has the most citations. These attitudes largely reflect the competition-based nature of economic values that have infiltrated the sciences.

Microbiologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric C. Fang noted that by changing this culture of competition, we can encourage quality over quantity. We must place more emphasis on basic research instead of only application-based research thought to be directly connected to certain social priorities, as basic research is more likely to lead to unintended discoveries.

Casadevall and Fang also noted that in today’s culture, scientists must be “self-promoting entrepreneurs” with high ambitions. Their research careers, if not their entire lives, are heavily dependent on grant funding. In other words, they must be good business people as well.

Unfortunately, a 2017 report by Canada’s Fundamental Science Review indicated that funding support for fundamental research at Canadian universities has been on the decline.

James Till, co-discoverer of stem cells, and John Polanyi, have emphasized the importance of funding in basic science. Polanyi, a Nobel laureate, likened the government’s underinvestment in those areas to undervaluing something “absolutely essential to our being.”

One could even go so far as to say that the shift to the current capitalist structure has resulted in an abandonment of enlightenment values like free inquiry and truth-seeking within the scientific community.

Of course, despite its relation to capitalist norms, nobody would question the need for competition in the advancement of the sciences — just refer to the famous Leibniz-Newton quarrel over who invented calculus first. However, unlike the business world, competition can never act as more than a simple means to reach nobler goals in the scientific world.

The focus on competition rivals free inquiry at universities as well: take a look at students around you. A lot of students are concerned with how to get a 4.0 GPA, how to balance extracurricular activities, how to get involved in a club to pad their résumés, how to get a position in a professor’s lab to eventually get a reference letter, and many other examples you have probably experienced as a U of T student.

However, it is not fair to place all the blame for this competitive culture on the students, since the problem is pervasive within the entire
scientific community.

What can students do, then? The answer is not simple. So long as capitalism is the main force shaping our lives and directing our actions, competitive culture will persist. Still, students can get involved in organizations or speak with professors directly about these issues. Together, we can bring these concerns to policy makers and look for practical solutions to remove the atmosphere of unnecessary competition. It is up to us to collaborate and reject the values created and imposed upon us by the business world.

It might be difficult, as many of these values have been internalized by the scientific community, but a rigorous attempt to bring such attitudes into consciousness will eventually lead to reforms in the ways we look at our own professional lives. After all, science has never been about getting ‘good’ or ‘bad’ results but instead has been driven by one’s curiosity and subsequent discovery through trial and error — whether or not what is discovered is rewarded immediately or goes unnoticed for generations.

We need to start with ourselves and carry out the domestic reforms in the hope that one day universities will act as institutions that prioritize values such as creativity, independence, and equality instead of being passive followers of socioeconomic trends without evaluating them first.