The economics of science

by Peter Horah

This article offers the reader a wide perspective to challenge and provoke discussion on the influences and drivers of science in the 21st Century and how we have become dependent on a capitalist model to develop technology and improve the lives of people.

Scientific discoveries made since the beginning of the 20th century have been astonishing but we must be cautious at the idea that individuals or a scientific community generously devoting their time and personal resources for the pursuit of knowledge for the general wellbeing of mankind. There invariably been a “sponsor” and in such relationships, an expectation of reward from the customer for access to large amounts of money.

We also have to discard the romantic vision of individual polymaths beavering away in a hidden laboratory. Most scientific activity takes place within walled institutions using expensive machinery and these institutions will select the most able to contribute and participate in a “project”: the modern language for experiments and research.

For most “ordinary” working men and women, the activities of the scientific industry (no longer a community) is judged on the latest available and affordable gadgets (washing machine1, TV, car, smartphone) or medical choices in combatting human-created diseases (obesity, diabetes, recreational drug use).

Science has become an integral part of consumerism.

What is science for?

Asking such a question to the 21st Century, western, face-book addicted teenager; you are likely to be rewarded with the answer: “whatever!”

This is not to suggest that we should conclude that the answer is inadequate or even rude as it succinctly summarises both polarities in the discussion.

On the one hand, it demonstrates “success” in that we have a new generation of young people having access to information at enormous speeds and gives opportunities for learning and communicating in new languages. The ICT smart-phone generation have more chances now than at any time in the past to be who they want to be – providing you have the parents who can afford to maintain their virtual lifestyles.

However, it also demonstrates failure as it stratifies society and exposes the IT divide between the ones who can afford access to the technology and the others who either cannot afford or are not able to understand it.

The rise of “popular science” on TV and in the media hasn’t curbed the enthusiasm of romantics who might have a vision of a better world and maintain an optimistic hope that things will be fixed as “science” either finds “a solution to all the pollution” or creates a “military laser in space so the ozone heels in a week”8

We have come to rely on capitalist science to solve problems and put right the mistakes that we may have made in our private lives from liver transplants from alcohol abuse to prosthetic limbs from causalities in war and peace.

So, is the purpose of Science about the free pursuit of knowledge of natural things that make the world work so that we can live full and happy lives? Or could it simply be the activities of a powerful and clever elite who push the boundaries to develop products and resources that can then be sold?

Let’s briefly consider how science is shaped by three main drivers in economics: multinationals, governments and the media.

 

Science and the multinationals

Any discussion on science and economics has to consider the role of multinationals in raising capital and to invest in science for a profit.

As science has become more complex and less reliant on individuals to fund individual research; it has become the domain of large multinational organisations to use science for the development of products.

Science can be seen to be participating within the scope of the user, exchange and value triangle explaining that “science” has become a commodity and exchangeable4.

This relationship has affected learning organisations like universities as Corporations have influenced and taken over research departments. This has ultimately resulted in influencing teaching and the choices of courses by limiting the scope of what can be learnt and narrowing the focus of what is researched5.

This matters particularly when we consider the ownership of knowledge. Patents and controls on intellectual capital can create perverse situations where antiretroviral drugs or agriculture seeds are supplied by monopolies. Such organisations, we can be reassured; will have grand statements on corporate social responsibility but some of questionable outcomes from the overall global, capitalist strategy.

There is, of course, a dilemma here since if you have a life threatening illness like HIV; you are not going to care who owns the patents that will help you to live longer providing the drugs are available and affordable.

 

Science and governments

Governments have been eager to exploit science and scientists for their own ends: whether in developing new forms of energy or hideous weapons of mass destruction.

Governments should work on behalf of people and communities but it has had a lamentable history in delivering benefits to their citizens: particularly in developing and autocratic regimes.

There have been enthusiasts to harness “white heat”6 technology and in medical health, organisation and delivery has had greater success than specific research on diseases like cancer. There is still a heavy reliance on charities to raise funds for research and whilst survival rates have improved, it has been a slow process with many casualties on the journey.

We might forgive governments in times of austerity to focus on the most valuable and need: but you really have to question why they choose to spend huge resources on military hardware and supporting the arms industry. It is a perverse use of science and scientists.

 

Science and the media

Popular science is now clearly labelled in bookshops along with all the other compartmentalised, branded and targeted reading choices. The development of radio, television and the personal computer has allowed access to science to a mass audience and anyone can now search on the internet for scientific knowledge.

Science has also developed its own celebrities: Patrick Moore and the late Professor Jacob Bronowski brought science into people’s living room in the late 20th Century whilst Professor Brian Cox now charms a new generation of want-to-knows with a delightful Mancurian charm.

Science publications like New Scientist and Nature have also played a valuable role in scientific discourse and engaged with amateurs and academics.

All of which is great– and we need more of it! The challenge is that science programmes are in competition with hour upon hour of soap operas and celebrity shows. The market interferes with the opportunity of giving people quality choice and we are left with the options of a multitude of TV channels but with very few programmes worth watching!

The internet provides an alternative way to engage with science – and it is astonishing how much information is freely available. The NASA9 website, for example, is exemplary in the available material and it offers an exciting way to learn.

However, one of curious paradoxes of the internet has been the huge demand for pornography that has developed a multi-million pound industry9. Rather than enlightening people, it is atomising and stratifying3, in a way that Marx could never have imagined.

 

Conclusion

“If the theory doesn’t work, it must be wrong!”2 The study and practice of science demands a disciplined and investigative approach to test ideas and consider alternative reasons.

Within the context of human discourse on religion, Marx suggests that conflict or religious opposition will give-way to critical, scientific relationships where science will constitute a unity for man and discourse within this framework will be resolved by science7. But, one of the curiosities in recent years is the return of popular religion which is now being accepted in schools risking Marx’s vision.

Therefore, science needs to be maintained as way of understanding and learning. It is a skill worth having as it empowers the thinker to consider all perspectives and be cautious at human emotion and unproven ideas. We cannot, of course, jettison emotion and expect to behave like computers – but a new-age of enlightenment is needed to counter the mumbo-jumbo culture that dumbs-down politics to an X-factor style competition and advocates authority from religion.

The failure of the economics of science and scientists is that it has allowed itself to become servants of capitalism rather than the other way around. The demands for science to access resources (capital, skilled labour) risks a Faustian pact with private enterprise where compromises have to be made.

Science and scientists have enjoyed patronage from nation states as well as from private companies and this discourse is not suggesting that technology could have worked better in the past if it had been only a state centric approach to research and development. But, there is no place for ambitious maverick lefties in modern 21st Century universities that behave like multi-national corporations: seeking customers to pay for the privilege to learn from the knowing. Academics have to be business managers as well as free thinkers.

This paper has attempted to highlight both the opportunities and risks in the science and economics mix. The role of socialists in this debate is not determined. We can criticise the market and how it distorts or influences the profane – but we have to mindful that intellectual freedom is essential for science and scientists: even if we are uncomfortable where that thought can take people.

References:

1. Chang, Ha-Joon (2010 ) “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism”, Penguin

2. Feynman, R ( 1995) “Six easy pieces”, The Fundamentals of Physics Explained, Penguin

3. Fromm, E (1987) “To have or to be?”, Picador

4. Harvey, D (2010) “A companion to Marx’s Capital”, Verso

5. Monbiot, G (2000) “The Captive State”, Pan

6. Pimlott, B (1992) “Harold Wilson”, Harper Collins

7. Tucker, R (1978) “The Marx-Engels Reader”, Norton

8. Robinson, T “Fifty” (1994) Love Over Rage [accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]

9. Cochrane, K, The Guardian, (25th October 2010)

The men who believe porn is wrong | Culture | The Guardian

[accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]

10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (2012) NASA – Home [accessed Friday, 3rd February 2012]

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