Trust Me: I’m A Scientist

SCIENTISTS – IMPARTIAL seekers after the secrets of the universe or hired guns for world capitalism? GEOFF JONES looks at the massive change of attitude towards scientists and science in general over the last 20 years.

Trust Me: I’m A Scientist

THE CHANGE in attitude towards scientists is shown by the arguments over BSE, Genetically Modified (GM) food, Depleted Uranium and the measles/mumps/rubella ‘triple-m’ vaccination.

Where once ‘a scientists says’ was taken as an impartial judgement, now even the most eminent scientist is greeted with a shrug and a cynical repeat of Mandy Rice Davies’ “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

In general, scientists’ response has been pained surprise and a reiteration of: “I’m a scientist, why don’t you believe me?”

For example, eminent biologist Lewis Wolpert entered the argument over GM food strongly on the side of the GM food producers with what to him seemed crushing arguments. He said firstly, there was no evidence that such food had caused damage, and secondly GM disease-resistant rice could be made which could feed the world’s starving.

Do you believe the experts?

WOLPERT’S FIRST argument turns on the question who provides the evidence? Evidence must be collected before it can be interpreted. But this collection must be done impartially without any bias.

Today, particularly after the BSE scandal, people just do not believe what ‘experts’ tell them is ‘evidence’. The suspicion is always that something is being held back.

Certainly the vast majority of scientists see themselves as impartial. But science and scientists do not live in a vacuum.

To survive, a scientist needs a pay cheque. To do his or her job they need a laboratory and a grant to buy apparatus. If the money comes from some funding body, government or industrial, there is a great temptation not to rock the boat.

This can take the form of accepting without too much questioning just the evidence that government sources wish to give you and not pushing too hard to get information from sources that the government doesn’t want you to examine.

For example, a committee of the Royal Society (Britain’s premier scientific body) is producing a report on the effects of Depleted Uranium (DU). But the report will not consider the effect of DU on people in Iraq, because the British government does not want them to.

If eminent scientists preparing an ‘impartial’ report can disregard evidence in this way, how much worse is it for scientists dependent on finance from industry for their funding? If a researcher finds an unwelcome result, the temptation is to ignore it, just as it is for a junior accountant finding an expenses fiddle by management or a civil servant seeing a government minister bending the rules.

This is even more likely if opposition to the accepted situation could end in job difficulties or even being rubbished by spin-doctors and the media.

Of course there are brave whistleblowers in science as in other fields. In the case of BSE, a few scientists pointed out the dangers. As the report on the BSE epidemic showed, their work was ignored or distorted because it raised too many problems for the Ministry of Agriculture.

But this lack of confidence in published evidence produces great dangers. Cranks such as those who denied the link between HIV and AIDS can take in gullible people. Unfortunately people who are encouraged not to accept professional advice about the triple-m vaccination and who do not get their babies vaccinated, will expose them to greater dangers.

Who chooses what to study?

BUT EVEN more importantly, what topics are studied and what ignored? Today, the vast majority of research is done under contract either from government research councils or from private industry.

To put it baldly, the sort of research done is the sort the sponsors want.

Recently IBM presented a £2 million super-computer free to Warwick University. Why? Because the university produces the sort of graduates that IBM want for their research departments.

But to give a famous example, the World Wide Web was developed by Tim Berners Lee in his spare time while doing another job for a nuclear research institute.

Then big companies were hostile to his idea of an information network open to everyone, which they couldn’t control.

Universities are now subject to the same commercial pressures. Their whole aim is to set up ‘centres of excellence’ – groups or departments that can attract big grants from industry or government.

Departments studying ‘inconvenient’ subjects, or subjects which don’t attract funding are closed down, a job made much easier because most researchers are on two or three-year fixed-term contracts with minimal employment rights.

The idea of universities as oases of impartial unhurried study has long gone. Scientists themselves may choose what subject they study, in line with their personal views (see box) but only within the limits of funding.

The most blatant examples are in the pharmaceutical industry. Millions of pounds are available for researching on a drug like Ritalin that could sell millions (or even better a drug that has the same effect as Ritalin that does not infringe the patents of Ritalin’s owners).

But only pennies are available for researching alternative non-chemical treatments for the symptoms of children with some behaviour disorders, for which Ritalin is prescribed.

Privatising rice

BUT WHAT about the other part of Wolpert’s argument, that scientific advances could produce rice strains that could end world starvation? The obvious question is who is funding these scientific advances? And what do they want to get out of them?

Last month the biotechnology company Syngenta announced that it had finished mapping the gene sequence of rice. This would enable the company to develop GM rice. But producing a ‘map’ of the genetic code of rice enables a company to take out a patent on that code.

Already 229 patents on rice have been taken out by the five biggest GM crop companies. One, RiceTec has a patent on Basmati rice (a very common variety in India) which is being challenged by the Indian government.

A patent means that the firm can charge royalties to any farmer using that species of rice.

Although Syngenta has pledged that it will provide information and technology free to poor farmers, patents remain in force while company policy and ownership can change.

When he closed Llanwern steelworks, the Chief Executive of CORUS spelled it out: “I’m in business to make money, not steel.” Similarly, Sygenta are in business to make money, not feed the hungry.

And any genetic modification research they fund will be aiming at the bottom line, to defeat their competitors, to make farmers dependent on their fertilisers and pesticides and on coming back to buy their seeds.

And it is the same story in all other areas of science application. Motor manufacturers continue to concentrate research on inefficient, polluting petrol engines, rather than alternatives such as fuel cell technology.

For every penny spent on research into alternative sources of energy a hundred pounds is spent on armaments research.

Science under socialism

IN ONE vital sense, Wolpert is 100% correct. Genetic modification could produce crops to banish starvation. Medical research could provide cures for most known diseases. Non-polluting energy sources could be developed.

But none of this will happen while the decision as to what research is to be done, and what results are to be published rests directly or indirectly in the hands of big business.

Socialists are right to be wary of pronouncements of ‘experts’ funded by big business. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Modern science could make a start at solving all the problems facing the planet. But it will not while its direction is in the hands of the huge corporations and their megarich owners.

Scientists in research laboratories are normal people. Mostly they would far prefer to be working to feed the hungry, heal the sick and reduce pollution. But to do that, there would have to be a massive change in the way science is funded.

For a start, nationalisation of the big drug companies under working-class control and management, would enable an immediate switch in the direction of pharmaceutical research. This would paradoxically provide more money, as drug companies spend far more on advertising themselves than they do on research.

At present, government grants for research are awarded by scientific research councils. Their funding could be massively increased by cutting defence research funding, which is mostly wasted, anyway.

Today these councils are ‘old pals clubs’ of the great and the good. They must be opened to democratic control and guidance.

But for socialists, removing the private ownership of the means of production and establishing a democratic socialist plan of production could ensure the full potential of science could benefit all humanity

Some Nobel Prize-winning physicists and the development of nuclear weapons.

ALBERT EINSTEIN Gave the impetus to the US-UK atomic weapons programme with the fear that the Nazis could produce atomic weapons. But on hearing of Hiroshima said “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”

JOSEPH ROTBLATT Worked on the original atomic bomb project. In 1944 was told by the head of the project “You realise of course that the real reason for making this bomb is to subdue our chief enemy – the USSR”. Immediately withdrew from the project and spend the rest of his life working on the medical aspects of nuclear physics.

ERNST TELLER ‘Father of the H-Bomb’ Pushed forward research on H-bombs against colleagues’ misgivings, quite openly so that they could be used against the USSR.

ANDRE SACHAROV ‘Father of the Russian H-Bomb’. Saw it necessary for the USSR to have its own H-bombs as defence against the USA. Later, a leading protester against the undemocratic regime of the Soviet Union and was exiled to Siberia.

And The Scientific Mercenary:

Werner Von Braun was the father of modern rocket science. Designer of Hitler’s V2 rocket, he moved in 1945 from laboratories in Nazi Germany to the US Defence Department without missing a pay cheque. Inspired a satiric song with the chorus: “I shoot them up, who cares where they come down!
That’s not my department says Werner Von Braun.”