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Corporate Power & Indentured Government Have Corrupted Science

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  • Teresa Binstock
    Corporate Power & Indentured Government Have Corrupted Science The honesty of science is being compromised at every turn New Statesman Essay (U.K.) Colin Tudge
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2004
      Corporate Power & Indentured Government Have Corrupted Science

      The honesty of science is being compromised at every turn
      New Statesman Essay (U.K.)
      Colin Tudge
      Monday 26th April 2004


      Can we still rely on what scientists tell us? Alas, no. Their conferences
      and papers are sponsored by industry, their bad results are concealed, their
      jobs are threatened if they step out of line. Colin Tudge on the corruption
      of humanity's most precious discipline

      Science - not science-based, "high" technology such as smart weapons or GM
      crops, but science itself - is losing its way. Since science is the most
      potent agent of change - the ultimately anti-conservative driver of world
      affairs - this concerns us all. Some scientists worry about the present turn
      of events. Some do their best to circumvent some of the secrecy and greed
      that are among its modern manifestations: Sir John Sulston, for example, who
      put his team's contributions to the Human Genome Project straight on to the
      web; or Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web in the first place, and
      could surely by now be Bill Gates-rich, but who instead made it free - a
      gift to humankind, like the ceramics of China.

      But scientists as a whole do not seem worried enough. Some are waxing fatter
      than their forerunners ever dreamt of - mere lucre, after all, had not used
      to be the natural reward of the intellectual. Some in the highest places
      feel that the present way of doing
      things is good enough. It is just the way of the world, they say, and we
      have to be "realistic". Yet scientists of all ranks write to the newspapers
      and complain about lack of
      public "trust", which they ascribe to "public ignorance", to be remedied by
      "education". They are right about the lack of trust, but not about the
      ignorance. People are not daft; and you don't have to be a PhD to smell a
      rat that is, as colonels used to write from Tunbridge Wells, nibbling not
      simply at the fact but at the very idea of civilisation.

      Science draws upon, and one way or another impinges upon, the furthest
      reaches of philosophy. Science cannot decide what is right or wrong but it
      affects moral decisions in a whole range of ways. It has been entwined with
      theology since its outset -
      indeed can be seen as the scion of religion - and the present public spats
      so often staged between the more dyed-in-the-wool clerics and the more
      aggressive scientists tend to be crude in the extreme. In normal times,
      these ramifications are fun. To be sure, there has been the odd burning. But
      on the whole, the nature and the limits of science have been cosily
      contained in donnish debate.

      What has changed things is modern, ruthless, vicious, crude economics: not
      capitalism per se, which has many benign faces, but the neo-monetarist,
      globalised, corporatised, no-holds-barred version of it. Science in its
      beginnings, and in essence as conceived by Pythagoras, is a divine
      invention. But even divinity is now deemed to be for sale and science, in
      effect, has been bought. Politicians and corporate bosses often argue that
      globalisation is good because it will bring unity to humankind. But it is
      hard to conceive of anything more able to disrupt humanity than the
      privatisation of science, with all its
      power to change minds and things. Patenting is necessary. But the widgets
      that are granted temporary licence derive from a corpus of knowledge put
      together by the genius of all humankind over at least 3,000 years. The
      sequestration of that knowledge is theft.

      Conversations with many scientists over many years have given me some
      insight into why so many of them seem content to put up with what to
      onlookers seems so foul. First, scientists say, science at its core is not
      as badly served as outsiders think. Most "basic" science - the really
      fundamental ideas, such as natural selection and the theory of relativity -
      is still paid for out of the public purse, and its course is still decided
      by intellectuals, who follow the ideas where they will
      lead. Only the applications - the translation of basic ideas into
      technologies - are in private hands. Despite appearances, core science
      maintains its Pythagorean purity.

      Second, some point out that input from commerce is not all bad. It provides
      much-needed cash, and science is a lot more expensive in these days of
      linear accelerators and PCR analysers than it was when Archimedes mused and
      sketched in the sand. And the particular problems posed by industry have
      often prompted the most profound insights. The laws of thermodynamics arose
      from study of the steam engine. Louis Pasteur founded modern microbiology in
      the 19th century on research undertaken for makers of wine and breeders of
      silkworms. Gregor Mendel set out to solve problems of interest to plant
      breeders and founded the science of genetics. It is fun and creative to turn
      a good wheeze into something that actually works, and perhaps does some
      good, as a new vaccine may do.

      Third, and more crudely, academic salaries are low. It is hard to raise a
      family in a university town on GBP30,000 a year. Professors knocking on the
      door for Nobel prizes may be paid less than supermarket managers, even
      without the free car.
      With a foot in industry, they can be rich, or at least be up there with the
      solicitors and estate agents. Why not? Do they deserve less? Beyond any
      doubt, academe and commerce can work very well together to everybody's
      benefit, and often have. Many scientists, like most of us, just muddle along
      as best they can and, if a drug company will pay them and nobody else will,
      well, what should a poor post-doc do?

      But a lot can go wrong, and does. It is good for science that taxes pay for
      core research. But why, the taxpayers may reasonably ask, do the material
      fruits of that research then pass into private hands?

      If we believe that the world as a whole must be run by corporations - that
      they alone have the competence and that corporations survive only by doing
      what people want and need - then it is fine and dandy that people at large
      should give them a head start. Otherwise, the present arrangement seems like
      a bad deal.

      In truth, industry and science are locked in a positive feedback loop: good
      for both, in a way, but nothing much to do with the outside world. Industry
      provides the wealth that finances the
      science that produces the high technologies that enable the industry to make
      more wealth, and so on and so on. But industry cannot afford to be
      altruistic, as its executives are wont to point out. It cannot finance
      science that does not
      increase its own wealth. So we have the situation so well recognised in
      medicine - of drugs developed for western diseases, which are often minor
      irritations, while the biggies of the world, such as malaria and all the
      other still rampant tropical infections, are largely neglected.

      With Aids, the drugs developed primarily for the rich have been made
      available to (some) poor people only after up-to-the-wire protesting. Last
      year in the Lancet, Dr Bernard Dixon asked whether Sars might be treated by
      the well-tried, century-old
      technique of "passive immunity" - injecting antibodies originally derived
      from infected patients and multiplied in some neutral organism. This method
      can be greatly improved by modern
      biotechnology. Would it not work? Later a drug company executive told him:
      "Of course it would. But we've looked at it and there's no money in it."
      Goodness me.

      In agriculture the conflict is even more stark. The real threat of
      genetically modified crops is not that they will poison us but that they are
      designed to place all agriculture, including that of the developing world,
      in the hands of a few companies. If the developing world takes its farming
      down the western industrial route that those companies follow, half of its
      enormous population will be permanently out of work. All in all, anyone who
      believes that big corporations do work in the interests of all humanity is
      living on another planet. Yet I have met many people in high places who do
      believe this.

      More pernicious still is the way that privatisation has corrupted the fabric
      of science itself. Science is dead without honesty, which should be judged
      as the lawyers judge it: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
      truth. As things are, this most
      fundamental principle is compromised at every turn. Bad results are
      concealed; apparently favourable results are bruited in the spirit of PR;
      people are bought and/or threatened so that they comply, and even that once
      final guarantor of honesty, "peer review", is now routinely circumvented.

      A cause celebre, described in a book out this year from Sheldon Krimsky of
      Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts (Science in the Private
      Interest), is that of Dr Nancy Olivieri, who in the 1990s worked at the
      University of Toronto and Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. She was
      sponsored by the Canadian Medical Research Council and the drug company
      Apotex to test the company's new treatment for thalassaemia, an inherited
      form of anaemia very common in the Mediterranean and south-east Asia though
      not so much in Canada.

      She found the drug did not work as well as Apotex hoped, and had worse side
      effects than the company had expected. She prepared to publish, as
      scientists should, and Apotex threatened to sue her. Then the university
      sacked her. Apotex was preparing to donate $12.7m to the university, and its
      president was lobbying the Canadian government on the firm's behalf.
      Olivieri was finally exonerated and reinstated. But her case leaves a
      permanent stain, not on her but on academe; and as university
      vice-chancellors struggle to keep their
      institutions alive in a world that apparently regards academe as a luxury,
      it is naive in the extreme to suppose that it was, or is, a one-off.

      I have seen what I think comes close to perjury many a time - and often on
      public platforms - in the name of corporate science. What makes it worse is
      the piety that envelops it: the appeal to "evidence", which for scientists
      is the sine qua non. Detractors are not simply derided, but shamed for their
      sloppy-mindedness. However, the "evidence" typically presented is anything
      but. There are graphs and statistics - the trappings of science - yet often
      they signify nothing.

      I remember a recent defence of golden rice, genetically engineered to be
      rich in Vitamin A, and hence to save the lives and sight of millions in the
      developing world. There were pictures of molecules and of poor blind
      children, and rows of
      figures to show how many could be helped, were it not for the tiresome
      non-governmental organisations. But the speaker did not point out that
      Vitamin A is, in effect, carotene, one of
      the commonest molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment that is present
      (masked by the chlorophyll) in green leaves, and in yellow roots such as
      carrots and cassava as well as fruits such as papaya and mango. If people
      practise horticulture, they have Vitamin A aplenty, and traditional farming
      always included horticulture. Problems start when traditional mixed farms
      are replaced by monocultural commodity crops for export to make cash for the
      owners of the new estates. Golden rice is not the antidote to old-fashioned
      inadequacy, as the speaker implied. It merely solves (partially)
      a problem created by modernity.

      Then there is the new spectre of "confidentiality", a long name for secrecy.
      Trials to test the safety of innovations, from toothbrushes to GM crops,
      used to be carried out by government scientists. Now, increasingly, they are
      by law in the hands of the producers themselves who - again protected by law
      - are not obliged to reveal all their results and methods. We must just take
      their word for it. Often the "evidence" presented in defence of, say, GM
      crops runs to thousands of pages, apparently covering many hundreds of
      trials, all of them carefully designed at great expense in the public
      interest. When Saddam Hussein presented the UN with a 10,000-page apologia
      for the weapons he apparently did not have, he was greeted with scepticism.
      The plausibility, diplomats felt, was inversely related to the bulk. Indeed

      Peer review? Well, it has never been quite what it was made out to be. There
      has always been bias. Much worse, however, is the state described by Richard
      Horton, editor of the Lancet, in the New York Review of Books last month.
      Drug companies
      now pay academics to give papers at international
      conferences, reporting favourable results from trials. (The companies also
      pick up all the other delegates' expenses, including evening concerts and
      day trips, and generally shower them with gifts. I have picked up the odd
      diary myself over the years.) These papers are then published, and commonly
      appear as supplements in respectable scientific journals, often with little
      or no peer review and with no direct input from the editor. This is PR, but
      it is solemnised by the reputation of the journal, in turn built up by the
      honesty of others.

      There is one final twist, an abstract one but perhaps most damaging of all.
      Science, since its outset, has been fostered as a rational pursuit. It is
      the ultimate cerebration. Scientists sometimes appear as cold fish even
      though they are driven by
      passion. They suppress their passions as a matter of strategy, to keep their
      thoughts clearer.

      Yet all serious scientists, from the Greeks onwards, have recognised the
      limitations of their cerebrations. First, they acknowledge that the human
      ability to find out, and to understand, is limited. Second, they recognise
      that however hard they try, they can never eliminate subjectivity or
      mistakes. Science is often presented as a seamless edifice of certainty,
      "rational" all the way through, where in reality it has the texture of
      Dundee cake: currants of "fact" and raisins of
      well-tried theory contained in a dough of rhetoric and supposition. It
      relies far more on untried dogma than is commonly admitted. Third,
      scientists with a taste for philosophy - as the best ones have - recognise
      that "rationality" is not all there is. It is only half of being human

      This idea is expressed in many ways - the Greeks pitting Apollo against
      Dionysus; Thomas Aquinas insisting that understanding requires both the
      empiricism of science and divine revelation; David Hume proclaiming that we
      cannot derive "ought" from "is"; and the entire Romantic movement,
      emphasising the absolute need for emotional response as a guide to human

      Now, in the debased discussions that pass for critical debate, science is
      flaunted as if it had in fact achieved its own ideal, as if it really is as
      "rational" as its best exponents aspire to be.
      That is a mistake in itself. To compound matters, rationality is
      increasingly equated with expediency, and expediency with profit. So it is
      "rational" to seek to make as much money as possible out of farming, say,
      and "irrational" to bang on about employment, and ways of life, and
      autonomy, and suchlike abstractions. As the coup de grace, policy is
      increasingly decided on the basis of what is "rational", which is equated
      both with what is commercially expedient and with what science says should
      happen. So it is that GM crops are being wished upon us on the grounds that
      there are no "scientific" reasons for not growing them. Anyone who cares
      about science - as well as anyone who cares about humanity, and good
      thinking - should be appalled by such nonsense. But it has become the norm,
      and is presented with all the pompous piety for which we deride the worst of

      Scientists and politicians are forever banging on about the need for "public
      debate" on the various manifestations of science, albeit with the
      implication that the status quo is basically fine and that the net flow of
      ideas should be de haut en bas. Well, we do need a public debate, but not
      the kind usually proposed. To put things right we need to dig very deep
      indeed, back to Pythagoras, and on from there, taking in most branches of
      moral philosophy, economics and theology. Otherwise the future life of
      humanity is going to be both more
      brutal and far shorter than it needs to be.

      This article first appeared in the New Statesman.

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