Worse than government funding. Worse than peer review. Worse than pandemic/climate/egalitarian activism.
The worse thing that happened is that science became high-status.
When I decided, around third grade, that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, this was considered a nerdy aspiration. Yes, one has to have a certain level of intelligence to do it, but the distinguishing feature of scientists was not this but our unusual enthusiasms. Just as some boys became obsessed with video games, military history, automobile engineering and aesthetics, or the the minutia of their favorite band, other boys became obsessed with Riemannian manifolds, gauge theories, black holes, turbulence, and dark matter. Such boys were not admired, but we were tolerated. We were informed that there were careers that would allow us to indulge such passions, although we were often reminded that with the computer programming and engineering skills we were acquiring, we could make more money doing other things. Depictions of scientists in movies and television were as often neutral or negative as positive. Scientists were often thought to possess a certain moral imbecility that led them to ignore the possible consequences of their research, reflecting the public’s correct impression of science as powerful but dangerous and disruptive. The idea that scientists should lecture the public on their sins would have seemed very odd.
All of this was very good for science. It kept science filled with the right people with the right motivations in the right subculture, and it gave the general public a pretty accurate sense of what sort of enterprise the non-applied sciences like high-energy physics and astrophysics were.
It was anomalous, in that the regime’s materialistic philosophy claims that physics gives us the ultimate truth about the world, but in fact the effect of physics and physicists on the consensus worldview is entirely negligible–they do not even have much influence on materialism itself.
People speak differently about scientists now. We supposedly have power, privilege, and influence. We are supposed to be an elite, doing what many wish to do but can’t either because the others lack the creativity and brainpower or because of some unfairness or arbitrariness in our selection process. Because we have influence, we must become a part of the regime’s priesthood; we must be vetted for our commitment to diversity, democracy, and other holy things. APS and individual departments begin blathering on about Our Values. Because we are elite, society has a right to demand that designated victim groups be represented proportionately. Those White, Jewish, and Asian men who thought we were abandoning highly paid careers in order to pursue our obscure, nerdish obsessions suddenly find that we are among the targets of the campaign of organized envy. We rush to hire some people of color, and when they find themselves small minorities, they Feel Unwelcome, so we must begin Uncomfortable Conversations about the unholiness of the demographics of our discipline’s heroes. Because who makes it into this elite group, and who gets funded in this group, is so important to society at large, we must start using Best Practices, meaning bureaucracy and paperwork. And, of course, Assessment and Surveys.
Furthermore, a field held in high regard will soon attract many of what Bruce Charlton calls the “Head Girl” type. These people do great work, and they soon come to dominate the young faculty, but as Charlton points out, there are drawbacks to this type. The competition is so fierce, with so many candidates outstandingly perfect by every metric, that no one with a deficiency in one area or a few-year slump in productivity from trying something risky that didn’t pan out can get to a tenure-track job. This is only fair, I suppose, but it’s sad nonetheless. Charlton argues that Head Girls will not be creative geniuses, and in the long run this will affect the vitality of our disciplines. (Already, science feels far too organized, too directed, by NSF and other funders.) Even in the short run, the culture subtly changes. It’s not nerdy anymore; the socially awkward weirdos are ever fewer. I’m a mediocre scientist, but a mediocre nerdy scientist–not well-rounded, not sociable, not excited about the latest thing. I drag down the mean productivity, but I don’t alter the culture. I admit that–as the saying goes– I begin to feel unwelcome.