Gig science marches onwards

Seppo Poutanen and Anne Kovalainen

Universities have transformed themselves into efficient trading houses dealing in knowledge produced by academics and creating business from it, while putting increasing emphasis on the “usability” and “usefulness” of this knowledge. The “usability of knowledge” is one of many manifestations in the growth of what we call “gig science”.

We argue that gig science is a wide and accelerating development that captures many current transformations taking place in academia. Conceptually, it can be seen to rest on three key elements: a) short, fixed-term work contracts, b) the McDonaldisation of science and c) the financing & financialisation of science. We address the key features of these elements in the following sections. After this, we detail one specific and spreading mode of performativity that defines the phenomenon. The concept “gig science” captures the essentially Janus-faced nature of the contemporary research culture: on the one hand, there is apparently ever-increasing volume, quality, effectivity and visibility of science, but, on the other hand, science’s outcomes look ever more standardised and industrial, produced by myriad overstressed workers with poor terms of employment.

Short, fixed-term work contracts

These are bound to the changing structure of universities, and in particular to their financial organisation. The growth of short-termism tends to produce an abundance of competent but internally competing research personnel. As bidding and applying for external funding increases, so does the pressure to maintain overall academic performance and deliver outcomes, i.e. to shorten the gap between carrying out research and publishing the results, meaning quicker publication times, for example. The managerial grip on individualised employment contracts strengthens, and there emerges a two-tier system where some are in permanent positions and a growing number of researchers are not. This shift has been particularly visible in Europe and has brought about a community of ‘insiders’ (permanent jobs) and ‘outsiders’ (variety of fixed-term positions, grant scholars, etc.).

McDonaldisation of science

McDonaldisation” broadly means the spreading of certain kind of mechanised and standardised rationality into performance of jobs and organisations. To universities it has come from the pressures of the “publish or perish” culture and increasing orientation toward measurable results within academia. It is characterised by both the casualisation of work and the shift of research into risk-averse activities, where the “McJobs” of academia are typically performed by the ‘outsiders’ with fixed-term positions. A McDonaldised academic institution keeps its production of publications stable and optimised, but variety, creative uncertainty and important risks of knowledge production can be on the losing side in this kind of development.

Financing & financialisation of science

In recent decades, European funding of scientific research has increasingly adopted the logic, means and vocabularies of business financing. In other words, there are elements that increasingly make funding of venture activities and funding of academic research activities resemble each other. Beyond the obvious competitive element, there are similarities in the risk evaluations carried out by the funding instruments, for example. A risk assessment for a venture capital funding decision requires due diligence procedure, that is, analysis by the investors of the worthiness of the investment by dividing the activity into components, which are then investigated. In much the same way, research funding decisions are increasingly based on numbers, consist of metrics and unbroken publication records, and, in natural sciences and medicine, of h-index comparisons between applicants. Furthermore, both private and public funding bodies have started to demand from academic applicants the same kind of bidding that is familiar to start-up businesses. As one consequence of this, even scientifically first-rate applications may not have a chance of funding if they do not adopt hyperbolic rhetoric using terms such as ‘bold cutting edge’ and ‘ground-breaking disruption’.

Tricks and skills to make your act appear extraordinary and unique have, of course, always been part and parcel of gigs in show business, and eloquent salesmanship also essentially defines what we have designated ‘gig science’. In the rest of this article we shed light on ‘gig science as performativity’ from one highly significant perspective.

Performative acts: science slams and perfect pitches
According to Wikipedia, “science slam is a scientific talk where scientists present their own scientific research work in a given time frame – usually 10 minutes – in front of a non-expert audience. The focus lies on teaching current science to a diverse audience in an entertaining way”.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the perfect pitch (also known as ‘elevator pitch’, as originally it was advised that the talk should not last longer than the average elevator ride) is one of the most important things a businessperson should do, and a perfect business pitch is all about “being able to sum up unique aspects of your idea, service or product in a way that excites others”. In other words, you should be able to summarise and sell your idea, service or product to a prospective funder or buyer during the short elevator ride.

Science slams have become a popular way of spreading knowledge about academic research in an easily accessible form, especially among young researchers. Most of these slams are local and university based, and inform the audience of some research in a ten-minute format. Often, the science slam is organised in the form of a competition, where the audience is empowered with voting for the best performance. The performative act usually builds up the whole case, and there is little or no background information on the competitors.

One of the globally spread science slams is the Falling Walls concept, which is an international platform “for all forms of science engagement, hosted by Falling Walls in cooperation with the Robert Bosch Stiftung”. The slogan “from public science to pub science” refers to the low thresholds and multiple activities of science slams that Falling Walls aim for. In addition, numerous university towns organise so-called science nights where different activities, participatory events and low threshold happenings are making science known to ‘ordinary citizens’.

There is nothing inherently wrong or sinister in the activities that platforms such as Falling Walls engage in. However, it is worth noting that there is sophisticated and detailed branding going on here, which is prone to put participating academics in a rather narrow and subordinate role. The funding model of Falling Walls indeed requires money from a university so that its academics can participate, but the university cannot set the agenda, time or the format, which are all produced by Falling Walls. In other words, universities buy the format and the brand in the manner of the global Idols singing competition or Apprentice TV show.

Pitching as a presentation method has also become a part of university activities. It is quite strongly and widely recommended as the model in, e.g. classrooms to present research work to peers, to colleagues in scientific conferences, and university level presentations to panels. Pitching relies on performative acts that can be done in differing ways, but there always seems to be a competitive element: the guiding line is to outdo others with a stunning performance. In the most positive light, the science slams and pitching might be connected to so-called citizen science, which aims to empower citizens and involve them in science by means of data gathering and outreach activities, for example. In reality though, the on-stage charm offensives at the heart of performative gig science tend to carry scant elements of building reciprocal relationships with their lay audience.

We conclude that the progress of what we call gig science has harmful effects on certain key tasks and ideals traditionally associated with scientific research. These ideals have essentially to do with freedoms: freedom from pursuing some presumably clear “usability”, freedom to use plenty of time and resources in following unconventional and even exotic ideas and the freedom to fail. In the worst case scenario, the triumphant march of gig science will make it more and more difficult even to imagine what radically different and singularly valuable scientific research might look like.

Originally published on Discover Society. Photo by John Mark Arnold on Unsplash

Seppo Poutanen is a social scientist and works as senior research fellow, with special interest in digitalisation, platform economy and gendered science (Turku School of Economics, University of Turku, Finland). His latest publications include Poutanen, S. & Kovalainen, A. (2017) “Gender and Innovation in the New Economy – Women, Identity, and Creative Work” (Palgrave Macmillan), and Poutanen, S. (2018) “Critical perspectives in entrepreneurship research” in The SAGE Handbook of Small Business and Entrepreneurship by SAGE. 

Anne Kovalainen is an economic sociologist and works as professor in entrepreneurship, with special interest in multidisciplinary analyses of society and economic life (Turku School of Economics, University of Turku, Finland). Her latest publications include Poutanen, S. & Kovalainen, A. (2017) “Gender and Innovation in the New Economy – Women, Identity, and Creative Work” (Palgrave Macmillan) and two qualitative research method books by SAGE (2016, 2008). We are in the process of writing an article about the gig science with Professor Rosemary Deem and our website is SWiPE.

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