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Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love and the Ivory Tower Paperback – March 28, 2010
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Book Review, New York Times, May 25, 2010, By Nicholas Wade. ...hilarious first novel [by] Daniel S. Greenberg ... a leading science journalist with a deep knowledge of the academic world and science policy.
--New York Times, May 25, 2010
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Top Customer Reviews
To succeed as satire, you need to have some insight into your quarry's motivations and thinking. But from the very first sentence of Chapter 1, it became clear to me that this author knows little about science and scientists beyond some buzzwords and Three Letter Acronyms. His human characters are just interchangeable paper targets. His real villain is the University itself, whose sins are repeatedly rehashed throughout this book-length screed. Greenberg clearly has an axe to grind against academia, and he slowly grinds it and regrinds and regrinds it again for the entire length of the book. Yet that axe never falls, and without that chop there's no story.
Everyone at Kershaw University, we are told, is venal and corrupt; but no one gets a comeuppance here. The long and repetitious setup takes us up to the last few pages, where the cast members are each rewarded out of the blue with what they most want. By the same logic, I should end my overlong critique by suddenly awarding Greenberg the prestigious Writing Prize and a movie deal. The End.
(Kinda unsatisfying, isn't it?)
Greenberg should stick to science journalism. He can't write fiction.
Second point: Somebody needs to tell Greenberg that when you write a satire, you're supposed to EXAGGERATE the subject matter. When you merely describe what's going on, it becomes nonfiction, not satire.
That is (maybe) mostly a joke. But the truth is that the picture Greenberg portrays of the modern research university is so uncomfortably accurate it makes me (a faculty member in the social sciences at a flagship Research I university) want to squirm. Take, as one small example, this description of one character: "Hal was a characteristically cheerless member of the post-doc proletariat, recognizable by their pallor and depressed demeanor from long hours in the lab, minimum-wage life style, imperious bosses, and uncertain vocational prospects." A reader not from academia might chuckle softly at this passage, but the postdocs out there (if they are even able to get away from the lab long enough to read a novel) would merely nod their heads in weary recognition. Or, as another example, most lay readers would dismiss as hyperbole Greenberg's assertion on p. 152 that, "Over many years, the grading system for undergraduates had deteriorated to merely a record of class attendance as the criterion for successfully completing a course." Faculty--with varying degrees of outrage or acquiescence--will realize that this characterization hits way too close to home for comfort.
Others have summarized the plot adequately, so I won't dwell on it, except to say that the problem at the heart of this academic satire (the ever-increasing pressure on universities to become profit-generating centers) will not go away soon--and the implications that has for the research enterprise and the education of college students are not entirely positive. Undergraduates are barely mentioned in the 270 pages of this novel, and that is no accident; it merely reflects their relative importance in the modern large research university.
Greenberg writes with the assurance of an insider and does an excellent job of laying out the various intersecting plot lines and characters. His writing style is distinctive--he'd never choose to use a single verb, noun, or adjective if he could get away with stringing together three--but enjoyable. I'd recommend this novel to anybody associated with, or interested in, higher education. Those unfamiliar with campus policies and issues may also enjoy the novel, though I'm guessing they'd find themselves scratching their heads on more than one occasion and wondering "Is it really as bad as all that?" The short answer, alas, is "yes, it is."
As an academic myself, I've read most of the satires of university life out there, from "Moo" to "Lucky Jim" and others. "Tech transfer" easily deserves to be in the company of the books at the top of the heap.