The Cult of Scientific Endeavors

Perpetuation is the ultimate objective of all organizations.  This is one of the more important but under-appreciated insights to come from the study of organizations, as it explains the behaviors of small organizations to large organizations and entire fields.

The perpetuation instinct is a powerful one, and understanding it is critical to understanding the challenges of pursuing innovation in established industries.

The insight was developed by three social psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Reicken, and Stanley Schachter, who in the early 1950s decided to study a Chicago cult that prophesied the upcoming end of the world.  History is replete with examples of doomsday cults, as Robert Cialdini notes, in his brilliant book (Influence):

"So it was with the Montanists of second-century Turkey, with the Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Holland, with the Sabbataists of seventeenth-century Izmir, with the Millerites of nineteenth-century America."

Consistent across all of these cults is the finding that, after the prophesied end has come and gone, they didn't despair and disband. On the contrary—their conviction was often strengthened.  So found Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter, who infiltrated the Chicago cult and studied them before, during, and after the end of their world. For these social psychologists, the reasons these groups chose to perpetuate themselves long after the original reasons for organizing had been proven wrong were psychological. While we like to think beliefs drive actions, the opposite is just as often true. Cult members had to re-align their beliefs to justify their own actions of quitting their jobs and selling their worldly possessions. 

For large organizations or fields facing the threat of an end, add to those individual psychological convictions the potential loss of respected professional identities, careers and, not insignificantly, money. With psychological, social, and economic forces working to make any organization or field that comes into existence fight to perpetuate itself, it's a small wonder we ever put down our old tools to pick up new ones. This is what's happening now to research programs engaged in the development of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. 

Today's WSJ reports on Energy Secretary Steven Chu's attempts to kill the research and development spending on Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), calling them "an impractical technology for vehicles, partly because they would require the creation of a network of hydrogen fueling stations" (Energy Secretary, Congress Collide Over Hydrogen Car Funds).  I happen to agree that the chances of developing cost-effective mass production, distribution, and storage technologies for hydrogen simultaneous with mass-produced, distributed, and adopted fuel cell vehicles are slim. 

That said, the response to Chu's attempt to end investments in this field provides some insights into the long-term effects of major research and development investments: namely, the creation of organizations and fields that, in short order, exist to perpetuate themselves.

The spending bill to be voted on by the Senate this week added $204
million for research and development across various hydrogen
technologies, compared with the $68.2 million the administration had
sought for work focused mainly on near-term fuel-cell applications,
such as power supplies for buildings and forklifts.

The roots of investments in HFCVs are suspect to begin with. In 2001, HFCVs promised not only a cleaner car in short order, but also the ability to avoid making any current changes to fuel efficiency standards since a better solution was just around the corner anyway.  Politicians and incumbent auto manufacturers supported this bird-in-the-bush strategy:

Former President George W. Bush championed the development of
hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, saying they could reduce U.S. dependence
on foreign oil. The federal government has spent roughly $1.5 billion
since 2001 on hydrogen fuel-cell research.

Among those fighting to keep federally funded hydrogen-vehicle research alive are General Motors Corp., Daimler AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor
Co. The companies, which are in various stages of developing hydrogen
fuel-cell vehicles, say the U.S. needs a broad range of technologies to
combat climate change.

But since HFCVs are no closer, Secretary Chu is looking to spend that money on more realistic near-term opportunities for hydrogen fuel cells, including stationary back-up power and fork lifts.  And the response?

Some lawmakers fear cuts in hydrogen-car subsidies would translate
into job losses at university and corporate labs in their states.

"The department's made a significant mistake here," Sen. Byron
Dorgan (D., N.D.) told Mr. Chu at a recent hearing of the Senate
Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development. Mr.
Dorgan, the panel's chairman, has steered millions of federal dollars
over the past five years to the National Center for Hydrogen Technology
at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

The field of HFCV research now exists to perpetuate itself.  The objectivity of scientists in pursuit of better understanding of hydrogen fuel cell technologies has been buried under layer upon layer of careers, identities, commitments, organizational relationships, actual buildings, money, and political power.  All surrounding a technology that may never actually exist in wide-spread practice. 

As we invest federal funds into science to develop new energy technologies (or anything else for that matter) we must realize we're risking the objectivity that fuels and legitimizes science in the first place.