We give huge amounts to science through our taxes. Isn’t it about time we had some say in what the money was used for?
In my first two pieces for Al Jazeera this year I wrote about the related matters of communication and money. Recent events have made it clear that democratic control of the economy requires a much greater degree of public participation in monetary policy. But it is also clear that the current organisation of knowledge in the major media makes this participation impossible in practical terms.
Though the origins and nature of money are not uncanny or complicated, the media contrive to make them a matter of deep mystery. This fact alone makes reform of the systems of communication an urgent priority.
To communication and credit we should add a third area where unaccountable power has hidden behind both real and invented complexity. In the decades since the Second World War states and their corporate lieutenants have made science into a valuable instrument for the pursuit of their interests. In the process they have denied the rest of us important opportunities to shape the world in which we live.
The money spent on science has an impact on economic development that is only rivalled by bank-created credit. In a previous column I quoted Harvey Brooks, who explained in his book The Government of Science that the 2 percent of GDP the government gave to scientists had “disproportionate social and economic leverage, since the whole thrust of the economy is determined by scientific and technical research”.
Brooks was writing in the 1960s but science continues to receive huge subsidies from taxpayers. And we still have almost no say in how this money is spent. In the United States the military controls much of the science budget directly, but even when the science is nominally civilian, the National Science and Technology Council seeks to “orient science and technology toward achieving national goals”.
These national goals are not widely publicised, much less debated. And while the details differ, other countries that spend significant amounts on science take a similar approach. Committees of senior scientists, industry representatives and government officials make the decisions behind closed doors and a veil of complicated jargon.
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The consequences surround us. The consumer economy is littered with the fruits of military research, from the silicon chip to the internet, by way of mass air transit and satellite communications. And if the engine of progress isn’t raison d’état it is profit.
Drug companies spend public subsidies testing new molecules that can be patented. The proliferation of questionable treatments for more or less fictitious disorders has nothing to do with any serious assessment of the public good, yet the sector continues to receive billions in direct and indirect subsidies, no questions asked.
Other science perspectives
In the social sciences too money talks. As long ago as the 1930s the economist and politician Harold Laski warned of the influence of the industrial foundations on the university: “it is merely the fact that a fund is in reach which permeates everything. The college develops along the lines that the foundation approves. The dependence is merely implicit, but it is in fact quite final.”
“Indeed while economists insist that their discipline bears comparison with the natural sciences, their complicity in the debt bubble gives their pretensions a farcical quality.“
More recently the financial sector has, in the words of Philip Augar, “wrapped its tentacles around the relevant parts of the academic world”.
The interests of the funders have a pervasive effect on the distribution of prestige in the social sciences. Media studies and sociology, which constantly intrude on matters that the powerful wish to keep under wraps, are treated with derision in the wider culture.
Mainstream economics, which reliably tells a story that suits the powerful, is held up as the pinnacle of the social sciences, for all its manifest failings. Indeed while economists insist that their discipline bears comparison with the natural sciences, their complicity in the debt bubble gives their pretensions a farcical quality.
It is as though the world’s most prestigious physicists had spent their days manhandling elephants up the stairs of their departments and throwing them off the roofs, only to express surprise and disappointment at the consequences. Meanwhile those economists who saw the economic crisis coming still struggle to secure a fair hearing. Though their ideas have proven predictive power they remain on the fringes.
What thinkers forsee
For the most part the self-declared champions of science pay little attention to this state and corporate domination. Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and many others have had tremendous fun warning us that the light-filled city built by reason is under siege from the armies of darkness.
“Even quite small sums could have an important effect, through creating new opportunities for scientists to do work that does not meet with state or corporate approval.“
An unlikely alliance of the New Age and the Old Testament, in Francis Wheen’s phrase, is out to get us, they tell us, repeatedly. It is all very JRR Tolkien and, like Tolkien, appeals to a certain kind of male adolescent imagination.
But while, despite Peter Jackson’s recent efforts, I remain very fond of The Hobbit, it is not a particularly helpful model for understanding the threats to reason in the real world. The present constitution of science is riddled with conflicts of interest, corruption and abuse. The enemies of free inquiry that really matter, in other words, are already inside the gates.
As in the realms of communication and credit the solution can only be found in greater public participation. We are not all scientists or engineers, any more than we are all journalists or bankers. But one way or another we are paying for science as we are paying for journalism and finance.
Though the details of particular processes may be beyond the understanding of the public, we have every right to a say in setting the objectives of science. In order to do that we must exercise some direct control over how funds are distributed. Even quite small sums could have an important effect, through creating new opportunities for scientists to do work that does not meet with state or corporate approval.
Taken together communication, subsidy and credit do much to shape the nature of our shared world. They determine what becomes practically possible and what remains an idle or wistful dream. They determine who is feted and admired, who is ignored or despised.
At present too often these great mechanisms join together in a kind of Sadean clockwork that exalts the contemptible and crushes the magnificent. I wonder if we are generous and wise enough to take control of this fever of gears and pulleys, and put it in the service of another world.
These then are the areas in which we must assert ourselves as a sovereign public through the acquisition and exercise of new powers. Next week I turn to the world of work, and the arrangements necessary if we are to take on the labour of government, the only sure means of securing our freedom.
Dan Hind is the prize-winning author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. Last year he published two online essays, “Common Sense” and “Maximum Republic”.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind