Innovation & Economic Justice: Joined at the Hip

There is a common logic that holds that there is a conflict in principle between business, science, and art (and students thereof).

But upon reflection, that can’t be right. We share a fundamental property of having our efforts dedicated to something bigger than ourselves. At the human scale of business, it doesn’t look much different from a researcher working collaboratively to run a research project, or an artist working to push their craft into new territory. Having worked alongside business people, scientists, and artists, on campus it is quite striking to me that we are similar in that we share a set of values for which we are willing to accept a gargantuan amount of misery.

Looking further, it is obvious that we are all in need of a particular kind of liberty. I don’t mean the smarmy sort invoked by the pundits, but rather the sort that is a necessary prerequisite for significant innovation, risk, and experimentation to occur. Fresh and inventive work requires these three ingredients in abundance.

Consider that without liberty (to a meaningful degree) from our elders and peers, orthodox beliefs about what is a good idea or what is appropriate methodology would fossilize the sciences and halt the gears of industry. Without diminishing the awesome importance of collaboration, there is a clear link between autonomy and achievement, an idea articulately expressed by Noam Chomsky (p.232).

Can you guess where I’m going with this? One of the most important forms of liberty that businesspersons, scholars, and artists require is financial. Our universities used to (and to some extent still do) understand that it is only by properly insulating their workers from the unpredictability of the market that robust development happens. By neglecting to pay their workers a living wage, McGill University is doing bad business, and encouraging questionable science and art.

This is because when we create a generation of poorly paid, insecure scholars who have had to work themselves to the bone their entire public school careers to get into McGill, and subsequently, are being paid just enough to stay on the treadmill we are creating scholars that are risk averse and conservative in thought.

To make this conversation concrete: in the not too distance past, I ran a linguistics-themed blog called the Polemical Brain. Here my colleague and I interviewed influential scientists of mind and language, and in each case we concluded our discussions by asking our guests about the politics of doing science. We wanted to know how funding and changes in university management were impacting the field. The responses were surprisingly uniform: while productivity, and efficiency (in their basest sense) were increasing, insecurity and innovation were decreasing. Students who were traditionally the driving force of innovation were now spending half their time filling out grant applications (and writing publications) to answer trivial questions that would at best lead to discoveries at the 0.05% significance levels. Financial insecurity and bureaucratization are strangling innovation. The famous linguist and McGill University alumni, Norbert Hornstein, called this the “crapification of academic life”.

It is time to put aside the petty divisions between workers and scholars of business, science, and art to see that we have shared interests. We need to send a clear message to those at McGill who hold the purse strings that their greed and inept funding of fundamental research is degrading our ability to create the economy and society we need and deserve.


This blog is a new initiative of the 15 and Fair McGill Coalition. Curated by MM and MB. This post written by MB.