Scientism, productivism, innovationism and entrepreneurship

Zhuozhang Li, University of Liverpool


The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” who invade the public university


The strike at federal Universities and Institutes has been addressed in numerous articles that focus on its immediate causes originating in the environment in which they operate. Without belittling them, I consider that they do not adequately refer to one that, embedded in our cognitive policy (a concept with which I frame Education and Science, Technology and Innovation Policies), has at its origin the behavior of an actor internal to the university. Those who today call themselves researchers-entrepreneurs and who are confused, in terms of the ethos they have and how they appear in the environment in which this policy is formulated since its inception, with what I refer to here as the advocacy coalition driven by the scientific elite and “their” technocrats.

My perception about this cause, which I consider structuring the dysfunctionality of our public university (the fact that I caricature by saying that it does not satisfy either the property class or the working class), and which would condition the political fragility that leads to strikes, is not new. However, my participation in a meeting of the ANDES Science and Technology Working Group representing ADunicamp, on May 4, convinced me of the need to explain it in a more categorical way than I have been doing.

I use as a reference the metaphor of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Scientism, Productivism, Innovationism and Entrepreneurship), which I use in my Scientific and Technological Policy classes to caricature how they are invading the university.

Of course, without the negative connotation that I attribute to them, they are revered by the researchers - entrepreneurs who created or support them, as demiurges of the university of the future. As a kind of trailblazers who lead a modernization that will lead the country along the path of development – ​​in this order – scientific, technological, economic and social.

By other colleagues, to whom I address this text, these Knights are seen as a distortion that can be tolerated and accepted. After all, they are not related to the denialists, the fascists, those who privatize higher education, etc.

A third group, still a minority and among whom I include myself, do not consider them as mere distortions, but as perversions to be better understood, explained and combated.

I focus on two of these Knights: Productivism and Innovationism. Firstly, because two important themes forwarded to the GT by the teaching movement as a whole, related to what they consider to be undue guidance from the company in our teaching, research and extension agendas, have a close relationship with these two knights. Secondly, because its implications, which as a duty of office I have analyzed exhaustively, can be useful for understanding the strike.

At the GT meeting that focuses thinking on S&T among left-wing professors, I argued, although my university was not on strike, that the result of our discussion (which I report here) should be sent to the strike command. And so that it could be included in public classes and other strike activities, I wrote this text.

The environment we were in allowed me to use a frank and ideologically referenced language to the values ​​and interests of left-wing teachers and contaminated with concepts that belong to the lexicon of our movement; I apologize for them being employed here.

Although I recognize that these concepts should be better explained to a wider audience, I think that the comrades and companions of our teaching and research institutions that I want to awaken to the problem I deal with (apologizing in advance for not presenting the “solutionatics” here that I have been formulating) will understand me.

About productivism

To better explain this Knight I have to mention the first, Scientism. Supported by the trans-ideological myth of the neutrality of techno-scientific knowledge still accepted by our left-wing peers (including orthodox Marxists), it makes them subordinate to a cognitive policy hegemonically elaborated by our scientific elite and “their” technocrats.

This policy means that we continue “teaching” Capitalist Technoscience. Although we all know that it carries the “Seven Deadly Sins” (planned deterioration, planned obsolescence, illusory and limiting performance, exacerbated consumerism, environmental degradation, systemic illness and psychological suffering).

Scientism, by inducing the reproduction of teaching, research and extension agendas conceived in the global North, makes us subject to the war in which “inaccurate” and “inhuman” people are involved there, using their “scientific production” as a weapon. Thus, they compete for the resources allocated, mostly by the government, to their activities.

Competition that can promote the “socioeconomic spillover” resulting from the allocation of government resources for business R&D. And influence the selection that companies make on where they will spend the tiny part of their R&D budget that they allocate to joint projects with the university.

Before examining how this is reflected among us, it is worth giving an example of what happens there. I take the often cited example: the USA. According to the makers of our policy, this war would leverage significant resources for the university. They ignore that what it captures to carry out joint projects corresponds to just 1% of its cost.

I could go deeper into the subject, but I think this is enough to show how mistaken they are about the probability that our university, located on the periphery of capitalism and whose companies we know well, could finance an important part of its costs in this way.

This mistake is magnified by the fact that in our MITs, contrary to what happens there, where 20% of the budget comes from joint projects with companies, this value (as shown by what happens at Unicamp) does not even exceed the US average of 1%.

The absurd “jabuticaba” of university patenting and other forms of inducing harmful behavior among professors, in order to reinforce the orientation of teaching, research and extension agendas in the direction of what the scientific elite claims to be the techno-scientific demand of our companies, must be understood as a consequence of this chain that begins with these two Knights.

Evidence such as that highlighted here could be supporting initiatives by the teaching movement towards more qualified questioning of this chain.

However, what we see is a protest restricted to the “corridors” space, oriented towards institutions such as Capes, CNPq or FAPs. As if they had not always been guided by our colleagues and former students with whom, it is important to highlight, we never discussed in our department meetings, etc., and in our classes and laboratories that they are being conquered by the Four Horsemen.

A complaint against the local company appears as an external element. She is accused of pushing for our teaching, research and extension agendas to replicate those of Northern universities in order to use the knowledge we produce for their benefit. Which, as discussed below, contradicts all available evidence.

In any case, an undue association prevails between the necessary and healthy procedure of university professors, of disseminating the results of their work among their peers and to society in general (their scientific production), and the perversion that involves the Productivism.

As we do not have analytical-conceptual elements and empirical information such as those indicated here, this association is not identified as undue. On the contrary, this perversion is interpreted as a mere distortion in relation to that fair procedure; as an exacerbation derived from mistakes, professional biases and prejudices, or “ill will” of bureaucrats uninformed of the reality they face.

This ends up making colleagues on the left accept Productivism as retribution, or a kind of accountability for our teaching activity (or rather, our “scientific production”, such as articles, patents, etc.) to the poor people who pays the tax that keeps the laboratories equipped, the air conditioning working and salary payments.

It is therefore necessary to consider the hypothesis that this perversion is derived from the model adopted by the scientific elite that, hegemonically, elaborates (formulates, implements and evaluates) our cognitive policy aiming to emulate here, on the periphery of capitalism, what it idealizes as being the reality of central countries.

About innovationism

There is also a lack of information regarding this second Knight.

The first is that it has little relation to what the colleagues who created it claim is happening in the central countries taken as a model.

Another result of this look at the US cognitive policy environment shows that, by chance, the resources raised by universities to carry out joint projects with companies also correspond to just 1% of what they spend on R&D. This allows us to state that the knowledge resulting from university research, which is what would motivate the American company to carry out joint projects, is not attractive to it. That this is not what they want from the university; That is not why they agree, with the power they have to influence the US government, that a considerable part of public spending on research should be directed to universities.

By extension, it is possible to assume that, even more reasonably, our local company would have no reason to be interested in this knowledge. Our peripheral condition conditions, on the one hand, a cultural dependence that engenders an imitative consumption pattern that demands goods and services already engineered in central countries. And, on the other hand, it makes the economically rational option for the company to be the extraction of absolute surplus value (and not relative surplus value) conditioning a little propensity for innovation and, even less, for business research.

In fact, as is the case there, the number of local innovative companies that consider it important for their innovative strategy to carry out joint projects with the university is negligible.

The second misunderstanding follows from the previous one. It has to do with the perception that carrying out joint projects of interest to companies would be guiding our teaching and research agendas, especially postgraduate studies in the hard sciences, in a direction that is adverse to the nature of the public university.

An analysis, even if superficial, allows us to see how this perception is mistaken: these agendas, due to the very foundational nature of our university's enclave, have always been guided by what, in the North, is business interest. In other words, even if there was an interest on the part of the local company, contrary to what is the norm in central countries, in carrying out joint projects with the university, this would not significantly influence our agendas. And that, on the contrary, it is conservative interests, internal to the university, that maintain its inadequacy to the political project of the university left.

The third misunderstanding derives from yet another lack of knowledge regarding how the university-company relationship actually works in central countries. The idea that it occurs in the way claimed and disseminated by the scientific elite and “their” technocrats is mostly accepted here. That is, through the transfer of knowledge originating in university research or in the creation of companies by professors or students in incubators; and that's why they and their startups derived from the action of the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Entrepreneurship, should be (as they are) vigorously encouraged.

Again, to contrast with our reality, it is worth remembering the case of the USA. There, contrary to what is claimed here, it is not the knowledge resulting from university research that is of interest to the company (which would imply the carrying out of joint projects) but rather the knowledge incorporated in the people trained through this research. In fact, more than half of the masters and doctors trained in hard science in the USA are hired, each year, by companies to carry out R&D in their laboratories; after all, this is what, all over the world, they are trained for.

Here, between 2006 and 2008 (and I take this period because it was the last period in which the country was “booming” and businesspeople were making a lot of money), the scientific elite expected them to hire the ninety thousand that we trained in those three years. The fact that only sixty-eight of them were hired to do R&D in our innovative companies is enough (but there are many others) to show the dysfunctionality, even if only for obtaining corporate profit, of our cognitive policy.

The local company, as it does not need to carry out research, has no reason to worry about the results of the research carried out at the university; whether disembodied (as occurs in the North), or incorporated into people (contrary to what occurs there).

In fact, 80% of innovative companies, when asked which of the five innovative activities is most important for their innovation strategy, answer that it is the acquisition of machinery and equipment. As pointed out before, this is an obvious consequence of the imitative market we have.

The generic idea that the company would be interested in interfering in the content of our research is not plausible. This content remains poorly functional to what the public university should be due to a dynamic that, despite being internal to the university, is conditioned by our cognitive policy. This does not mean that there are no exceptions to this typical peripheral behavior; The neoliberal privatization drive has made them increasingly frequent. Studies show that their motivation is rooted in the specific interest of the same actors who, now acting “from the bottom up”, participate in the elaboration of cognitive policy.   

I reiterate that, contrary to what is still the majority thinking on the left, Innovationism does not result from pressure from local companies to research subjects of interest to them at the university. That it is not due to a search by companies to increase their profits that the teaching, research and extension agendas that we “teach” remain oriented towards content that still remains important in central countries. But here they are far from being coherent with the techno-scientific demands embedded in the goods and services that satisfy unmet collective needs.

And that, contrary to the dominant interpretation on the left, the salary supplement and other benefits they seek (and which when they obtain they tend to absent themselves from strikes!), do not come from company resources. It is the public fund that directly or indirectly (when the government resource allocated to the company requires a relationship with the university), which is transformed into payments for teachers and students. The company's tiny participation in financing those endogenous and exogenous arrangements does not allow us to continue attributing what we are witnessing to a privatization of the university. What we are witnessing in our environment is a no less perverse mix of “oessization” (transformation of our institutions into OSs, OCIPs, etc.) and public-private partnership, driven by researcher-entrepreneurs.


Considering that moments of strike should be used by workers to analyze the causes that lead to their demands and that a general strike is a unique situation to explain to society (particularly to students' families and policymakers) the structural causes Given the situation we find ourselves in, I think the two topics discussed here should be discussed in it.

It is necessary for the left-wing teaching movement to show society that, at universities, we are not all the same. That there are teachers, many of whom call themselves left-wing, who are responsible for maintaining and reproducing these two perversions. That they are the ones who, with the power that the trans-ideological myth of the neutrality of capitalist technoscience gives them, exacerbated by our peripheral condition, those who consciously or not, maintain the institutionality of cognitive policy, internal and external to the university, which feeds back the structural causes that hinder the implementation of the university left’s project.

It is peer pressure from researchers-entrepreneurs to legitimize their activity through institutional arrangements that engender endogenously and exogenously to the university, the heralds of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And it is their ability to work with the traditional scientific elite that ensures the maintenance of the cognitive policy that prevents the university from legitimizing itself among the people who make it possible.

Their pervasive and not always just veiled reaction to the action of “extension professors”, focused on the redesign and socio-technical adaptation of capitalist technoscience towards solidary technoscience (the best way to reorient our Teaching, Research and Extension agendas!), is a powerful obstacle to overcoming the dysfunctionality that I caricatured at the beginning.

I end by highlighting that the overcoming of the operational university that our teacher Marilena Chauí tells us about at, seems to require from the striking teachers a discussion like the one proposed here.

* Renato Dagnino He is a professor at the Department of Scientific and Technological Policy at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Solidarity Technoscience, a strategic manual (anti-capital fights).

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