Socialist Worker

Science: Does big business control it?

Issue No. 1873

STEVEN ROSE is one of Britain's best-known scientists and he has written many popular books on science. He is a lifelong socialist and a politically committed activist, opposing the US war on Vietnam in the 1960s through to opposing the war on Iraq.

He spoke to Socialist Worker at his university offices in London about science and society today.

Tony Blair talks of Britain being at the 'cutting edge' of science. How would you respond?

Blair thinks that by simply using slogans you can avoid the problem of how science is actually done in the real world. Science and technology are part of the machinery of capitalist society.

What science does is essentially what you pay for, and the people who pay for science are overwhelmingly industry-in my own field of the biosciences, especially the pharmaceutical companies and the military.

The government is very fond of using the word stakeholders. By five to one the 'stakeholders' told Blair they don't want genetically manipulated crops. Yet I suspect most of us know which way the government aims to go on this.

If you take no notice of the public when you go to war with Iraq, why should you take any notice of the public on the issue of genetically manipulated crops? We have to find ways of making science responsive to the genuine needs of the people, ways of opening up decision making.

What are your views on GM crops?

It has so far been done without any clear benefit to the consumer, but with huge benefit to agribusiness and the big companies. We should focus not just on the technology, but the whole context of agribusiness.

There's nothing intrinsically dangerous about inserting or removing genes in plants or animals. It all depends-and that is the problem.

Organisms are not computers. You can't just take out a gene and put in another gene as if you were rewiring a bit of machinery. Genes express themselves in very complex ways depending on context-including all the other genes in the cell.

The idea you can have one gene which can convey, for example, frost resistance to strawberries and that is the only thing it does under all circumstances is manifestly untrue.

If you say to me, 'Is it hazardous to eat GM foods?' I think there are a lot more toxic things in the environment that we should worry about. However I won't buy a GM tomato, because I don't want to contribute to Monsanto's profits.

Has the domination of science by the corporations and military got worse over recent decades?

Yes, much worse.

Take the university in whose offices we are sitting now. Within it are private laboratories funded by particular drug companies. These laboratories are sealed off from the rest of the campus. You'll find this in many universities across Britain.

More and more research contracts are funded by industry. Increasingly in areas like genetics and biotechnology you will find that the researchers themselves have industrial consultancies, may be shareholders or directors of companies.

You get secret research doctorates which you are not allowed to view unless you have a company licence, where the company has authority over what can be published.

Universities have many roles, and need to be engaged with the outside world. But they also have to provide a critical space, otherwise why bother having universities?

I don't think there is any going back to the way science was funded in the 1950s and 1960s. We have to find other ways of handling the situation. The only way I can see is to not pretend that any research is disinterested.

The right questions to ask of any research paper and researcher are, 'What are your interests? What drug companies do you have shares in? What are you a director of?' Some scientific journals now demand that sort of statement of financial involvement is made on research papers.

But the mass media in Britain is far too deferential to scientists.

When you see scientists, including myself, speak in public you need to apply the test Jeremy Paxman applies to politicians-'Why is this bastard lying to me?'

Within the anti-corporate globalisation movement you sometimes get a reaction which sees science and scientists as the tool of the corporations. How do you react?

Many new age movements are sceptical of science, although they use its products, like the internet!

The hostility is directed against the one-eyed rationality of the sort of reductionist science that has developed in Western capitalist societies.

This sort of science claims you can reduce the social to the psychological, the psychological to the physiological, the physiological to the biochemical, and ultimately all to physics.

Many opponents of this sort of science are arguing for alternative ways of knowing the world, traditions different from the reductionism of Western science. We need to respect these and pay attention to them.

I am very pragmatic. It's a question of whether the claims they make hold up. But where people turn against the whole idea of trying to understand the world on a rational basis, this is a disastrous retreat.

Naive reductionism simply doesn't work. It is useless to try and explain the workings of the brain, let alone the mind, in terms of quantum physics.

A crucial lesson of Marxism is that all phenomena are multiply and complexly caused. We have to discuss the determining level of causation. If you want to know what causes Alzheimer's disease it is worthwhile looking at the biochemistry of the brain.

But if you want to know why there was a Gulf War on Iraq there is no point in looking at changes in the serotonin levels in George Bush's or Tony Blair's brain.

Another facet of anti-science comes from the animal rights movement. In my own research I have to kill animals in order to study what's going on inside their brains. The animal rights people are passionately opposed to that. One response within the scientific community is to hide.

My response is the reverse.

I am willing to discuss what I am doing and why with any animal rights person, provided they share my prior commitment to human rights. My science is paid for by public funds, and I must therefore be accountable.

What do you see as the big issues people should be aware of in relation to science and society today?

Above all we need to find a way of increasing civil society's control over what science and technology is done. Francis Bacon, who started the scientific revolution in the 17th century, said, 'Knowledge is power.'

So to democratise power you have to democratise knowledge.

To achieve this control we must be proactive, to go upstream of the technological development to the science itself. This means that it is important that civil society can understand enough about the claims that science makes to make a judgement.

In Britain there is huge concern over genetic manipulation of plants and animals. What concerns me more is the possibility of human genetic manipulation and the ideological insistence that many of the crises in society are driven by genetic forces.

You get claims about genes for aggression, criminality, drunkenness. And you get attempts to fix social problems by manipulating genes or brains.

For instance there is the huge increase in diagnosing disruptive kids at schools as suffering from a disease-attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and prescribing them an amphetamine like the drug Ritalin.

The book I am working on, with the working title The Future of the Brain, is an attempt to look at where the new neuro-technologies-through drugs, electrical stimulation, the creation of human-IT interfaces and so on-are taking us.

Back in the 1960s there was a marvellous slogan on the wall of one of the Oxford colleges: 'Do not adjust your mind, the fault is in reality.'

We are now being told we can adjust your mind rather than reality. Technologies designed to do that are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

What's going on is the medicalising of problems which are almost certainly issues in the social arena, which require social, political and cultural change.

What can ordinary people do about these kind of issues?

Lay people can become very expert about issues that concern them. But what is essential is public engagement, people coming together in a collective way.

I asked a Hungarian dissident in the 1960s, 'How do you survive in such a society?' They said, 'You have to live every day as if you're living in a democracy.'

That requires a certain degree of courage. You get more courage if you can share it collectively with others.

Do you see hope for such collective action in the movements that have developed in the last few years-the movement against corporate globalisation and the anti-war movement?

We are faced with the increasing development of the United States as a naked form of new imperialism. Especially in this context the alternative globalisation movement is enormously important.

It is made up of diverse forces who put forward a mixed set of views, alternatives and solutions. But this is not surprising.

We live in a world of rapidly shifting technology and so both the problems and the answers are also constantly changing. In trying to understand and change the world nothing makes sense if you don't also understand the way in which it is historically and technologically changing.

That's why there aren't any fixed answers and that's why there is such a divergence of forces within the new social movements.

But they represent the only hope, the only global force we have for resistance.


The Making of Memory and Alas, Poor Darwin are two of Steven's best-known books.

They are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, price £8.99. Go to their website or phone 020 7637 1848.

Some of Steven's other books, Not in Our Genes and Lifelines, are out of print. But they are worth looking for in libraries and second hand bookshops.

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Sat 18 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1873
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