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Ruth Mueller: “Bound to Nothing but Science Itself? Academic Life Science Careers and the Nomadic Disposable Research Scientist”

October 20, 2010 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm  |  Humanities 1, Room 420


Ruth MuellerRuth Mueller is a contract researcher at the Department of Social Studies of Science and a lecturer at the Faculty of Life Sciences and the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Vienna.

She will present: “Bound to Nothing but Science Itself?  Academic Life Science Careers and the Nomadic Disposable Research Scientist,” at UCSC on Wednesday, October 20, 2010.

Donna Haraway has argued that “the exclusion of the non-independent person” (Haraway 1997) has been constitutive for the social organization of the emerging modern sciences, practically excluding everyone but the bourgeois white man from participating in scientific knowledge production, in part because the multiple others were perceived as socially and emotionally bound, attached and tied. Drawing on recent research work in Austria and the US, this talk will look into how independence, tielessness and detachment are essential features of the scientific self in the contemporary socio-epistemic configurations of the academic life sciences. It look at how the ideal scientific person – especially in fast growing, highly global and increasingly commercialized fields such as the life sciences – is still imagined as being tied to nothing but science itself, happily subordinating other interests in life to the scientific vocation.

Against a backdrop of rising competition for academic positions, it seems that in the life sciences and in academia beyond, increasingly normative ideas are emerging about what a scientist’s life course should look like in order to qualify for a career in science. Central elements of this normative vision include engaging in international mobility and global competition, as well as submitting to ongoing procedures of evaluation, application and selection. Together, these requirements constitute a kind of “blueprint” for measuring the quality of the scientists’ work and the suitability of their lives for careers in research – a blueprint which has become institutionalized in the employment and assessment policies of contemporary academic institutions.

These contemporary career rationales both draw on and rework the notion of the detached, independent, tieless scientists on a number of levels, participating in the shaping of a nomadic, disposable research scientist who is accumulating nothing “but the absence of inhibition, a sort of free energy prepared to invest itself anywhere.” (Latour 1984)

However, at any given moment in time, these scientists are also part of specific local collectives – such as research group, project teams – in which they work and live. This paper will explore how young scientists make sense of these different forms of collectivity in their local research environments, given the current career rationales that emphasise individualism, competition, mobility and tielessness. I will argue that what we are currently witnessing is a trend towards the institutionalization of highly fragile and exploitative social relations in academic settings and of a “devil-may-care” mentality towards colleagues, groups and institutions that young scientists increasingly consider an obligatory trait for making a career in the life sciences today.


October 20, 2010
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm


Humanities 1, Room 420
Humanites 1 University of California, Santa Cruz Cowell College
Santa Cruz, CA 95064 United States
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