'Tech Transfer'

May 12, 2010

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an academic novel, set at a fictional (but prestigious) American research university, portrays tenured faculty who are indolent but querulous; students whose main activities include protesting, avoiding classes, and popping pills; and an administration that’s disorganized, secretive, and ineffectual. Money and status are the primary concerns of professors and administrators alike; the community as a whole is characterized by lassitude and petty squabbling, while education is of minimal importance to anyone.

So what’s different about Tech Transfer, the new book by Daniel S. Greenberg?

For one thing, Greenberg himself. While Tech Transfer is his first novel, Greenberg's journalism career has spanned well over four decades and has primarily focused on science – specifically how it is justified, funded, and conducted in the United States. All three of his nonfiction books address these themes, and the title of the most recent – Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism – might also function as a brief synopsis of Tech Transfer.

And that’s hardly coincidental. In writing the novel, Greenberg told Inside Higher Ed, his intention was “to take the same information that I had gathered in my prior researches and remold it into a novelistic form.”

The book’s plot centers on one Collie Marson, who has left academe after an unsuccessful postdoc at Kershaw University and now works for a venture capital firm, where he is under increasing pressure to prove that he merits his position (and its hefty paycheck). Collie hears a rumor about top-secret (and potentially very lucrative) research taking place at Kershaw, and hopes to prove himself by nabbing a stake for his employer. Along the way he becomes entangled with a variety of characters all pursuing their own ends, including the Dollards, a wealthy couple attempting to use Kershaw connections to improve their social status; Bill Winner, an economics professor with no administrative experience, who is catapulted to the presidency of Kershaw on the grounds that every other candidate is irredeemably tainted by scandal; Elias Fenster, president of the Faculty Senate and Collie’s erstwhile postdoctoral research adviser, who is desperate to hide the fact that his entire distinguished career is built on fraudulent science; and Professor Max “Brucie” Brusolowitz, whose research is very real, but would present an ethical minefield even if it weren’t secretly funded by the U.S. Army.

While some plot details – such as the specific nature of Brucie’s research – are patently ludicrous, the overall depiction of academe and its machinations is intended to be realistic, Greenberg said: “It tries to show what goes on inside a modern university.”

The picture isn’t a flattering one. Tech Transfer does take aim at all of the academic novel's usual suspects: rampant abuse of the tenure system; unchecked grade inflation; lazy, cynical undergrads; administrative incompetence; etc. But, while it's clear that Greenberg has strong views on all these issues (a deduction he was happy to confirm), his real focus is -- of course -- science.

At Kershaw, every laboratory is a snakepit. Some research is fraudulent, or meaningless, or both; some is unconscionable; a great deal involves serious conflicts of interest; all is carried out with little or no administrative oversight, and nearly all is useless to the university or anyone else but the scientist conducting it: "Practical research," the book explains, "was particularly abhorrent to Kershaw's scientific royalty."

And for all the narrative's often-farcical tone, the subject matter, Greenberg said, is "terribly serious."

"The general plot," he said, "is really taken from real life. I mean, I've talked to a couple of hundred university professors, and I know that this is reality."

Of course, it's a reality that Greenberg has covered extensively over the course of his career, which raises the question of why he'd want to address the same material in a novel -- particularly when, in his own words, "I have no reputation in fiction." He even opted to publish the book himself rather than attempting to find a publisher for it.

"I got the feeling," Greenberg explained, "that there was a story to tell that doesn't really lend itself to academic ... policy books." The novel, he said, gave him the chance to include some anecdotal material that didn't fit in his nonfiction books (despite being true). What's more, he added, "I enjoyed this new type of writing," and he hopes it will draw in new readers who may find the subject matter interesting, but who aren't quite invested enough to slog through his denser works. Given the strength of his convictions about the issues addressed, he said, he'd like to bring them to the attention of a wider audience.

Those convictions are perhaps best summarized by Max Brusolowitz, in a soliloquy of sorts that appears near the end of Tech Transfer: "You know, most of us scientists are miserably educated. They start us out with science and math when we're kids, and if we show any talent, we get only a smattering of anything else. And we're encouraged to be narrow by all this crap about the country falling behind the rest of the world in math and science and we're short of scientists, and and the economy is going to hell. All bullshit, but it keeps the money coming into science, and no matter how much we get, we're organized to scream it's not enough, we're falling behind. We've got all these scientific and university organizations and lobbyists in Washington working on this full time, and the press gobbles it up. They're all for more science, but they never think about science for what. Why are we doing some of the things we do?"

Greenberg's answer? "Money," which "is on the mind of American science much more than anything else."

In an ideal world, Greenberg believes, the federal government would only provide research funds to the 10 or 20 universities producing the best research; the rest would shift their focus elsewhere. But that solution, he said, is "politically impossible," and lesser changes would amount only to "nibbling around the edges" of the problem.

Still, he said, he'd like to see future scientists getting more education in other subjects, such as the arts and humanities -- "General education has been a great triumph," in Greenberg's view, but science has gained a disproportionate preeminence, thanks to American industry and the military. (He does, however, agree with the common sentiment that students majoring in other areas also ought to learn more science.)

And, too, more transparency -- for universities and the government as well -- "would be very, very helpful."

"But I also joke about [that]," he said. "Everyone talks about transparency, but they're not transparent."

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