Striving for creativity: public-private institutes, patches, drugs and sanctuaries

Universities, firms, foundations, philanthropists, and the defense establishment are all striving to enhance creativity, induce innovation, and generate substantial impacts of a variety of forms.

My own university, for example, has just started the construction phase of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID), a $150 million space designed to enhance broad-based interdisciplinary thinking and research regarding developments in the life sciences. This project builds upon UW-Madison’s long-standing strengths in life sciences research, interdisciplinary innovation, and recent advances in stem cell research.

WID is made up of (a) the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (the public arm, with monies coming from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the university, and the state) and (b) the Morgridge Institute for Research (the private arm, with monies coming from the Morgridge family, with links to Cisco Systems).

WID’s governance system will be fused at points, as will the physical creative spaces, though research and development work will be grounded in different legal (public or private) spaces, so as to break free of certain federal restrictions on research practice (e.g., those related to stem cell research), and to generate synergy between public and private research cultures.

Speaking of creativity and research cultures, UC Berkeley Geography PhD student Trevor Paglen has received a lot of recent attention (including a Colbert Report session) regarding his research on the classified dimension of the US Federal Government’s R&D budget. As noted before in GlobalHigherEd, over 50% of the R&D budget is allocated to the Department of Defense’s research programs, dwarfing agencies like the National Science Foundation (which gets a mere 4%).

But, as the New York Times notes, drawing upon Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments data, an increasing proportion of this is classified (hence the “black budget” moniker). Paglen’s research has delved into aspects of the research cultures associated with the highly secretive defense establishment via the use of graphic representations, especially patches (badges).

The patches analyzed in his new book titled I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World are worth examining, for they convey information about the practices associated with building research team cultures in a key segment of US federal government-sponsored R&D. They are also, if you watch the Colbert Report interview, seriously surreal. I must admit never having seen patches created by non-defense scientists.

From the secretive to the psychedelic? Nature released findings this week regarding research on the significant use of cognitive enhancing drugs in the American scientific community, especially:

methylphenidate (Ritalin), a stimulant normally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder but well-known on college campuses as a ‘study aid’; modafinil (Provigil), prescribed to treat sleep disorders but also used off-label to combat general fatigue or overcome jet lag; and beta blockers, drugs prescribed for cardiac arrhythmia that also have an anti-anxiety effect.

The results suggest that approximately 20-25% of scientists (broadly defined) in the USA might be engaged in the consumption of drugs to improve “focus”, “concentration”, counteract jetlag, and “reduce anxiety”, with variable frequencies of usage, though notable side effects.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a brief review of this issue.

Finally, today’s Guardian has a brief albeit interesting story about the use of the Vassar family’s (of Vassar College lineage) largesse to create a $300m sanctuary – Destination Universitas – in the Nevada desert, a:

private getaway for stressed-out presidents and prime ministers who want to “reconnect with their unique purpose in life”.

The Universitas Leadership Sanctuary is intended as part monastery and part conference centre where the most powerful men and women on the planet can get away from it all with a combination of reading, contemplation and even a spot of gardening.

To remind them of their role as leaders of the planet, the sanctuary will be built in the shape of a four-storey globe on the shores of Lake Las Vegas, a privately-owned lake in the south Nevada desert where temperatures can reach 50C at the height of summer.

Clearly new forms of creativity are being sought after – via the production of new spaces, the creation of team-building iconography in the form of patches, and the consumption of drugs (fueled by the internet which provides access via the postal service). Curiously some of these (including secretive research sites and the sanctuary) are located in deserts, perhaps providing a sign that KAUST in Saudi Arabia has a future despite being a long way from the other sites of knowledge production (UC Berkeley, for example) that KAUST’s leaders seek to link to.

All slightly unsettling, though by design and at a series of different levels. These spaces and practices are also indicative of a yearning for something that is perceived to be absent. But, will the provision of what might be absent, in the drive for more creativity, really make a difference in the end?

Kris Olds

2 thoughts on “Striving for creativity: public-private institutes, patches, drugs and sanctuaries

  1. Pingback: Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » Anthropology Research Patches?

  2. Pingback: Cisco, KAUST, and Microsoft: hybrid offerings for global higher ed « GlobalHigherEd

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