Just a thought on how class privilege in science led to the research grant system

Sometimes it is easy to forget that science started out with only the idle rich could having the time and the money to explore natural phenomena. Perhaps the only notable great exception was De Vinci who rose from poverty on his talents but was still completely dependent on the patronage of the wealthy and defense money to pay for his artistic and scientific endeavors. Today, this academic legacy is most evident in the domination of white males and the middle and upper class members of academia. One of the over looked vestiges that allows this privileged barrier to STEM is the grant system.

Ask yourself this, would a plumber or a builder or any other laboring be expected to come to your house with their own funding to do their jobs?  This is exactly what is asked in any STEM job advertisement requiring an “externally funded research program”.  It is the same old model of an academic community of the privileged classes who can enter only if they can bring their own money and equipment to the society meeting.  More recently in the 20th century, the state has stepped in providing self-funding through NSF or NIH grants, but the academic model for hiring a new assistant professor is still based on the idea that an academic should be professionally wealthy enough to bring their own money and help support the university rather than working for the university. A university STEM job advertisement is not so much an offer of employment as it is a request for at least 7 years of charity work. The job benefits only come later with tenure and then that is not even certain.

The result is that the established funded community who dole out the money has then become the new wealthy social class that is determining who is in and who is out. Indeed, networking, belonging to certain lab groups with the correct linage, speaking the correct language with the accepted ideas are critical parts of belonging the any scientific community. These are the same communities that set the standards and determine who gets the grants. I sometimes wonder if STEM academia has not just replicated a Victorian gentlemen’s academic club, but with women admitted as well. Thus, the research university system is still a system of science that at its core remains designed for competition among members of the moneyed classes.


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