Sciencewashing: How Science and the Pursuit of Knowledge Gentrify Cities

Steph Yin and Alexis Takahashi of Free Radicals speaking at Caveat.
Steph Yin and Alexis Takahashi of Free Radicals speaking at Caveat.

In front of a full house at Caveat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Wednesday evening, members of the activist collective Free Radicals Steph Yin and Alexis Takahashi delivered a torrent of a talk that deftly exposed the role that science-making plays in the unjust economic tide that continues to sweep across cities around the world, forcing their “service classes”– as one of Yin’s slides read– to the periphery of cities, out of reach of the advanced-degree jobs that come to dominate the so-called bright spots of urban “renewal” and out of the economic sphere that the results of the scientific research itself ends up benefitting.

Yin and Takahasi’s style is as necessarily combative as it is well-sourced; each argument is buttressed by a devastating statistic or historical through-line. And in an age where urban “tech hubs” are starting to look the same no matter where you go, Yin and Takahashi’s narrative wisely compares the actions of private institutions and governments around the world to one another, moving along a clear through-line from the shady and unlawful actions of Columbia University– working with the Morningside Heights Housing Corporation to pressure tenants out of SRO housing and weaseling their way into eminent domain– to the slick promotional videos dubbing Berlin the “Brain City” of tomorrow while rents rise, wages stagnate, and poverty levels hang at a glaring 22%, and even to a massive telescope project in rural China that displaced over nine-thousand farmers for the sake of a government-run project to search for extraterrestrial signals.

It’s invigorating to see the healthy criticism that Silicon Valley has received in the past year expanded and repositioned on institutions that normally take cover behind the ethical shield of disease prevention and a vague bettering of the public good through Science.

Takahashi delivered a three-point take-down of that dubious ethical shield, using the case study of Columbia University’s aggressive gentrification efforts in Morningside Heights and the Manhattanville neighborhood as a case study in how concepts like “progress” and the “quest for knowledge” obscure a world where not everyone benefits equally from science-driven development.

According to Takahashi’s three-point critique, here are some Sciencewashing tropes in action:

  • Science as a force for public good. There is plenty of good, but let us not forget the dark corners as well: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the development of the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction– all these outgrowths of scientific research must be rolled into its ongoing legacy, lest we get too starry-eyed in the face of a glossy message of general progress and betterment for all.
  • Universities are a force of good. Maybe, but first they have to figure out how to untangle themselves from a corporatism that has them acting like, in Takahashi’s words, “hedge funds that also teach people sometimes,” where University Presidents act more like CEOs and Boards of Trustees are majority -ruled by financial-sector elites. The result is a situation like Columbia’s, where a 9 billion dollar endowment plops new glass buildings like the Zuckerman Institute down in a fog of “faux pro-community guise“, aggressing upon neighborhoods that are 30% below the poverty line.


Screenshot from a page of “Gentrification in Harlem and the Abuse of Eminent Domain” by Bianka Alexandria Bell

And in a more brazen money-grab, the contemporary allegiance of big pharma with academia through a patent-pipeline system incentivizes the University to seek ever-greater profits from the intellectual property generated between its walls, leading to dubious partnerships like Columbia’s with AstraZeneca, all while environments degrade and wages stagnate just down the street.

  • And lastly, jobs. An inevitable selling point, but for whom? Many of the jobs created in knowledge economies require advanced degrees and track along typically white-male-dominated hiring patterns across all scientific fields. Who are the jobs really being created for– who stands to benefit the most? Is the community demanding these kinds of jobs and the kinds of costly patented properties they’ll produce?

After their tightly-argued examples of sciencewashing-in-situ, Yin and Takahashi offered some intriguing glimmers of solutions. Participatory research, like the environmental work done by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, offers an alternative way to actually do science to the patent/profit pipeline. And Yin described her own interest in participatory budgeting, whereby pressure is put on institutions to include the local community in votes to determine spending out of the annual budget. And Takahashi ended the evening with a slightly more radical call for scientists to truly operate as citizens of their time and place by “leveraging their positions of power to help local communities.” It’s a much-needed call for scientists to place solidarity with the least advantaged among us above their allegiance to the increasingly corporate corridors of institutional science.

To learn more about Free Radicals, check out their website.

And if you’re digging the Free Radicals, also be sure to check out Science for the People.


About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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