The New American University and the Truth of Co-Production
The university is still the major institutional container for labs outside of industry, and it is being rocked by challenges from all sides, especially from growing pressure to monetize all aspects of its activities.
Many universities need new sources of revenue to continue to perform their traditional missions, let alone expand them, especially those universities without endowments from wealthy alumni. Their revenue has to come either from tuition, from government funding drawn from taxation, or from some sort of relationship with industry. Without a dramatic shift in societal values to the left, North American governments are unlikely to increase how they fund universities in a dramatic way, and we are arguably far past the limit to the money that can come from tuition. That leaves relationships with the private sector, which underlines the importance of monetized transdisciplinarity, with all of its attendant benefits and perils. For most academics, having co-creators from the private sector is appealing until you have to deal with the full implications of the notion—for example, the growing link between entrepreneurialism and precarious labor. Hybrid labs are a major flashpoint in this change because they are some of the key spaces in which and around which these arguments are being staged.
In Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity, Gerald Raunig argues that both inside and outside of universities, a mode of “radically dispersed” knowledge production is emerging (16). For Raunig, something in the economy of knowledge production shifted around the turn of the millennium (100, 111). After the triumph of factory discourse in the arts and humanities that Galison and Jones describe in their work, Raunig sees a shift away from the factory model to “temporary, ephemeral, project based” clusters of micro-enterprises and pseudo-institutions, populated by “entrepreneurial” workers (101). Whereas the logic of the factory and related large institutions functioned by the discovery and managing (if not resolving) of contradictions, the new mode promotes “precarization and insecurity” (101). Like Galison and Jones, for Raunig, the arts and humanities are not a passive object shaped by the discourse of big science; they have played and continue to play an active role in producing the current milieu.61 Even though the characteristic quality of this emerging economy is its diffuseness, the processes and techniques that made the factory so successful as a paradigm have not disappeared, but continue to function. Likewise, industry does not disappear; rather, it populates all areas of lived experience at a micro-scale (95–96). Like many others, Raunig gives these assemblages the collective name of “the creative industries,” and we’d be well justified to count hybrid labs in general and media labs in particular as part of this economy.
The word “industry” represents at once the problem and the possible latent form of its own solution. Following on Adorno and Horkheimer, Raunig sees “the culture industry” as a mode of subjectivization in which “desire and enslavement coincide” (117). The culture industry exhorts us to be creative in a way that is not optional: “Everyone is an artist, so he or she should also work and live in a way that is accordingly flexible, spontaneous, and mobile, of self-exploiting, without security and forced into mobility” (191). In other words, the gig economy is the truth of the life of the artist: spontaneity and mobility come at considerable personal risk. Simultaneously, Raunig sees potential escape routes from these same conditions. Returning to the French etymology of industrie, he identifies factors in industry that exceed “the economic circles of time efficiency” because industry also always contains the possibility of “doing things differently” (121): not business, but the busyness (122) of “disobedient industries” (153), “little monsters that thwart the structures and institutional antagonisms through their obstinacy” (27).
Raunig’s work provides the larger context for how we see contemporary hybrid labs as a problem containing the emergent possibilities of a solution. They are a product and a symptom of the creative industries and what Raunig calls “the global landscape of universities, which cannot be simply classified in identifiable categories such as neoliberal or reactionary” (25). Raunig begins with the premise that this landscape is complex and geopolitically differentiated, but insists that “authoritarian hierarchies can certainly go hand in hand with soft forms off conduct, budgets cuts can coexist with particular rewards, stabilizing procedures can be implemented alongside practices of existential and social destabilizing” (26). Moreover, the real and imagined threats and the authorities that govern them are not external to the university and its faculty; they also emerge from faculty and students themselves (26). But it is always possible to imagine reinventing knowledge production within this system, producing what Raunig calls “the contemporary, modulating university” (24). As we expand on below in our discussion of deep organizational changes that have taken place at Arizona State University, the lab is one of the chief sites in which that reimagining is occurring.
Despite this tectonic shift in the organization of work in general and universities in particular, many scholars still feel, as Robert Frodeman does, that a traditional liberal education is the primary mission of the university in the twenty-first century. “University life cannot be mapped onto the producer-consumer relation, if for no other reason that one engages in research or attends college in order to educate and thus change one’s soul, proclivities, and desires. This is the difference between a liberal and a technical education. Thus what is called for is an artful balancing of attention to the needs of the larger community with the scholar’s loving care.”62 However, there is nothing that says that this situation can’t change, or that it hasn’t already done so in many universities already. One institution that many scholars are watching carefully with the possibility of change in mind is Arizona State University.
Work on transdisciplinarity by scholars like Frodeman and Robert Weingart provides a major touchstone for Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars’ Designing the New American University.63 Crow has been the President of Arizona State University (ASU) since 2002. For an academic book, Designing the New American University has received a remarkable amount of attention from outside the university and bears signs of its bipartisan influence in its blurbs, the first two of which are from former US Democratic President Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush, former Republican governor of Florida and 2015 US Presidential candidate. Crow seizes on the concept of transdisciplinarity and its implications for the contemporary university, but, along the way, he erases the ambiguities in the work of scholars like Frodeman and Weingart, mobilizing their arguments while downplaying their careful qualifications and ambivalences.64 For example, Crow and Dabars write that “Peter Weingart makes the corollary point that . . . the university has lost its monopoly on the institution of knowledge production,” erasing Weingart’s observation that this supposed loss is anecdotal and unsubstantiated and taking it instead as a fait accompli.65 In his position as university President and continental thought leader, however, Crow is in a position to turn this observation into practice through policy formation.
Crow contends that his work at ASU has produced an institutional blueprint that he refers to as the “New American University” (NAU) of his book title, though it is sometimes just called “The Arizona Model.” This blueprint has laudable goals: to situate the university’s mission of knowledge production within the insistence that the institution should be representative of the full demographic and economic diversity of the region in which it is situated, and that the knowledge that it produces should be relevant to that population. Crow writes that as a design process, it “constitutes an institutional experiment at scale in real time.”66 Also like the living labs, the NAU is both network and platform. Outside ASU itself, this resulted in the creation of an eleven-institution “University Innovation Alliance” that shares the same goals.67
The NAU model values interdisciplinarity because it sees it as a way of developing competitive research capacity. Since 2009, the traditional department-based organization of ASU has passed through a series of changes where departments have closed or have merged into other departments. At the same time, there has been an increase in interdepartmental structures like labs and research centres. In The New American University, Crow touts recommendations for new organizational models from the National Academies Press’s book-length report, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research based on matrices—“structures long evident in industry and government laboratories” that use centers, labs, courses and offices between departments to encourage the free movement of students, faculty and staff.68 Following on the report, Crow and Dabars emphasize repeatedly that “interdisciplinary research in industrial and government laboratories should serve as a model for academia” because laboratories organize themselves flexibly and temporarily according to the problem that they wish to solve.69 In the NAU model, labs are pivotal to the transformation of the university as an institution.
This thinking emerges out of Crow and Barry Bozeman’s earlier comprehensive survey of North American R&D labs in Limited by Design: R&D Laboratories in the U.S. National Innovation System. Though it is not nearly as widely read as Designing the New American University, this book is the largest-scale laboratory survey that we know of, so it is worth discussing in detail, especially in light of the obvious influence it is now having on university policy formation and infrastructure redesign. Crow was heavily involved in the National Comparative Research and Development Project (NCRDP) from 1984 to 1998. During that time, over 40 researchers interviewed thousands of scientists, as well as administrators and bureaucrats in the field in order to produce the first comprehensive study of research and development (R&D) labs in the USA (26). Using NCDRP data, Crow and Bozeman estimated in 1998 that there were more than 16,000 R&D labs in the USA, and probably fewer than 17,000. By their definition, an R&D lab focuses on engineering and science research and employs at least 25 people full-time (7). In the face of this staggering number, Crow and Bozeman candidly admit that “Knowledge of R&D laboratories as a whole is virtually impossible” (11); “R&D laboratories are among the most diverse sets of organizations one will ever find. Labs have unique and deeply entrenched cultures. Labs differ in technical capabilities, organizational structure, resources, market interaction, political and bureaucratic environment, and adaptability” (5). Not surprisingly, then, Crow and Bozeman describe some of the more intriguing individual labs that they encountered as “hybrids” (in one of their studies, focusing on energy-related R&D labs in Canada and the USA, a full third of the labs in question were hybrids ) but their use of the term differs from ours in that for them, hybridity describes a mix of public and private ownership (xix—xx). So how to proceed when “there is no obvious point of analytical departure” (7) and “Knowledge of R&D laboratories as a whole is virtually impossible, except at the most superficial level” (11)?
Crow and Bozeman’s interest in R&D labs is systemic and strategic. They see their methodological perspective, which they dub “institutional design” (27), as the most important part of their research (xxi). They are interested in the particular role that R&D labs play in the National Innovation System (NIS), “the complex network of agents, policies, and institutions supporting the process of technical advance in an economy” (42) because what they want to do is ensure that policy-makers have a better sense of what, exactly, they are funding and defunding (xxi). In fact, they go so far as to point out that “the policy frameworks that dominate R&D policy work against system-level knowledge” (9). As a result, they place their emphasis on government R&D labs that hold the potential to contribute to innovation on a national level because “those are the ones that policy makers can quickly and directly change” (249). Of the remaining “Mysterious 16,000,” as they call them, about 65% are “small, engineering job shops” created to do work specific to the interests of the firm that houses them (5). They estimate that there are “no more than 1,000 laboratories of sufficient size and resources to make significant contributions, on an ongoing basis, to public domain science and technology,” and of those, there are only “500 or so high-capacity laboratories responsible for most sweeping science and technology change” (229). In Crow and Bozeman’s argot, these “superlabs,” which make up less than 0.5% of the labs in their sample group, are the “players” (77), and what they dub “the player principle” dictates that these few labs are the proper target for government R&D policy that would strive to improve national levels of innovation (72). And it has been this way for a long time. “The superlabs are familiar. They have dominated American science and technology for more than 100 years” (75). The rest of the 16,000 must fare as they can in the open market (35).
Though Crow and Bozeman are emphatic that small labs make a meaningful contribution to the national economy by increasing the productivity of the firms that house them, “their activities are best viewed as only marginally related to government policy because the knowledge externalities from these activities are usually quite modest” (97). Early in the book, when Crow and Bozeman describe a “cookie-cutter scientist” (3) interested in publications and scientific prestige, the scorn is palpable because this person is not a player in the game of high-stakes lab funding. On the face of it, this laissez-faire attitude seems cold, but Crow and Bozeman are, at least, non-interventionist. “Merely muddling the missions of public laboratories with commercialization missions while failing to understand the diversity of science and technology investigations underpinning industrial success will contribute little” (71).
In essence, what we are doing in The Lab Book is trying to develop a model to talk about the missing matter of the Crow and Bozeman study. The labs we care about are not just those with fewer than 25 full-time people employed, but also labs that fall entirely outside of the science and engineering fields (Crow and Bozeman also excluded labs “chiefly concerned with conducting research in the social sciences” ). Perhaps the only thing that hybrid labs have in common is a kind of family resemblance. The extended laboratory model is a framework that will allow people to think usefully about such labs, because it’s not enough to say that they exist and then ignore them. We also recognize that in some cases, the examples we discuss do not fit easily only as Humanities Labs or Social Science labs, but span across a changing landscape of academic work.
In this respect, our aim is similar to various aspects of the media-archaeological program, especially Siegfried Zielinski’s “variantology”: “I advocate a philology as exact as possible of nonperfect precise things, which will be devised and developed to support communications with others, to facilitate them, to make them a sensational, even perhaps scandalous happening.”70 If there is a better description of hybrid labs than a “nonperfect precise thing” devised and developed to support communication, it is difficult to imagine. As Crow and Bozeman write, “Knowledge of R&D labs comes in clusters and clumps or, more often, in singletons” (9). Given this reality, neither the aggregate approach that works for the largest laboratories, nor the detailed individual case study does exactly what we want. Like the hybrid labs that constitute our object of study, ours is a hybrid approach based on the operational function of spaces that someone has decided to call a lab. That last factor, the naming of the lab as such, is also crucially important. A study like Crow and Bozeman’s, impressive as it is in terms of scale, begins from the assumption that what is reported in a questionnaire is not necessarily factually true, but that the vast size of the same will itself correct for exaggerations and prevarications (“Often then dominance of ideology in science and technology debates is less due to hard and fast positions of disputants than to lack of evidence” ). However, even this assertion is one that could be made much more easily in the relatively sunny days of the Clinton administration, before the current post-truth era of US government. We are not suggesting that scientists, scholars, and bureaucrats deliberately lie in such documents, but rather that there are always rules in place that determine what can be said or not said about a given lab in advance. As a result, we need concepts like the ActLab code-switching umbrella (which we discuss in a case study in chapter 5) that enable various hybrid modes to function in a conflictual, even hostile environment.
One of the goals we hope to meet by providing a framework rather than a focused study is to allow hybrid labs to better talk about themselves. Even Crow and Bozeman are careful to hedge their bets, noting that their institutional design model “is not a theory of policy making or even a set of interrelated assumptions yielding specific prescriptions” (248). Like them, we are interested in creative an interpretive framework, but our object and audience differ from theirs. If most hybrid labs engage in some form of basic (as opposed to applied) research, then they need to be better at describing their various specializations and competences. This means not just talking about individual research properties, or even the mission of the lab, but how this mission is articulated to the priorities of the institution that houses them. Especially in the academy, this is both complex and crucial because “university labs are increasingly set within larger structures that have diverse missions, in some cases missions that are not strictly academic” (18).
Crow and Bozeman’s research indicates that “most scientists know a great deal about their own research and very little about the lab, its missions, its connections to the outside world, its funding, budgeting and planning processes. Researchers know much more about other researchers who work on similar problems but on the other side of the world than they know about research in unrelated fields in the next building. Most scientists, except for their involvement in writing grant proposals, seem to assume mystical research funding processes” (9). Moreover, we need to be able to talk about how labs connect to each other. What kinds of ad hoc and formal relationships appear? How long do they last? What do they accomplish? To what extent do these relationships become part of a long-term strategy? These are issues that are usually distasteful to artists and scholars because of the residual hangover of Romanticism and the sense of the sovereignty of the individual creator, but labs are collective enterprises by nature, and we have spent far too little time thinking about infrastructure in the arts and humanities.71 Even if our own labs are too small to be funded, or “mediocre” in Crow and Bozeman’s sense, every lab is still affected by the way that public policy decisions are implemented (227).
“[T]he gentle nudge that policy makers give industrial labs by altering the tax treatment of R&D or by providing subsidies,” write Crow and Bozeman, “does not compare to the ability to create (or terminate) labs and missions” (38). In order to change lab culture at the institutional level, one needs to be holding the reins of the institution. Indeed, at ASU, where Crow is now President, new institutes replete with research centers and labs have appeared, and other labs have been closed abruptly. Hundreds of jobs have been eliminated as multiple units have been combined into one interdisciplinary unit with fewer staff.72 Not everyone is happy, as with new structures come new forms of social distinction and new pecking orders. Several prominent researchers have launched lawsuits against Crow and ASU, with the university making counterclaims about misconduct and safety violations on the part of the scientists.73
Because of the prominence of science in the ASU model, it’s not surprising that lab space and infrastructure is a huge part of these battles. University laboratories are every bit as heterogeneous as the rest of the non-player 16,000; “there is no template for university R&D laboratories.”74 The one thing that they have in common is that they are almost all dependent on the government for financing, except for “relatively uncommon university-based industrial service laboratories and the many mediocre university labs that do not compete well for government funding.”75 It seems that this latter sentiment is still at play in Crow’s organizational efforts at U of Arizona. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006 that “Every laboratory bench in the 138,000 square feet of lab space is on wheels in wide-open rooms. If a researcher’s grant money evaporates, or another gets a funding windfall, the institute can shrink or expand any of the labs quickly. The overall benchmark for holding onto space is $225 per square foot, per year, in outside funding.”76 In a more recent case, filed by Dr. Dierdre Meldrum against ASU, Meldrum alleges in a 74-page whistleblower letter she authored that “her lab was entered—apparently on a weekend night—by an employee who removed research equipment and supplies . . . University officials answered in emails that the Monterey Bay institute had requested the change of project leadership, and off-hours removal of research gear was just a misunderstanding. Some items were returned.”77
Despite these legal difficulties, the ASU model remains highly influential. Crow and Dabars assert that their model is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that the traditional academic value of self-determination remains primary (“Self-determination is the crux of the distinction between the bureaucratic mindset of an agency and the boundary spanning dynamism of an academic enterprise”).78 Like the living labs model (see chapter 7), it may be possible to build a New American University with an eye toward the advancement of social justice and democracy. Furthermore, we acknowledge that the US context does not hold for all cases; redesigning the policy and infrastructure of a university outside the US along these lines might well play out very differently.
Hybrid labs are proliferating as the result of a massive shift in how knowledge in general is produced, and how universities and other institutions around the globe work. There are many versions of this shift, but a substantial number of them have to do with finding ways to extract profit from the production of knowledge. Everywhere, there is a shift from a focus on the production and circulation of research in the public interest to entrepreneurship, and an accompanying focus on the near future rather than the long continuity of historical knowledge. So, the question might be, what if we proceeded otherwise? What would a system of knowledge production look like that focused on the missing 16,000?