Science co-opted by big business
endangers society and stultifies the imagination on which the advancement of
science depends; liberating science and the imagination is top priority for the
survival of people and planet Dr Mae-Wan Ho
Science is central to every aspect
of our everyday lives and our wellbeing, be it to do with climate change, genetically
modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear energy, mobile telephony, or the tens of
thousands of chemicals to which we are constantly exposed in our homes,
workplace, and the general environment.
Science is also a force for
innovation, and investing in science is indeed investing in wealth creation and
Science, as much as the arts and
humanities, needs to be thoroughly integrated into the social, cultural and
political fabric of society; science-literacy is essential if we are to have a
truly democratic society in which everyone can participate in making important
decisions on science and science policies.
Integrating science in society and
promoting public understanding is all the more important as science has been
co-opted by big business more intent on profit than serving the public good or
telling the truth about safety and sustainability. In my book Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare
 (first published in 1998, translated into many languages, and reprinted
with an introduction and update in 2007), I argued how bad science - in the
form of outmoded and discredited genetic determinism - has colluded with big
business unwittingly or otherwise to bring us the ‘brave new world’ of GMOs and
animal and human cloning.
It has become increasingly difficult
for people to get reliable and critical scientific information for deciding not
only which technologies to adopt, but more importantly, which scientific
research to support on the basis of social, ethical, environmental and
aesthetic merit. There is a widespread and mistaken assumption that science is
neutral or ‘value-free’ and hence beyond reproach, so it is only the technology
arising from the science that can be good or bad.
Science, as opposed to religious
dogma, is not about certainties; it is changing all the time. But, as in any
other field of human endeavour, the status quo tends to hang on for far
too long, because of vested interests in huge profits, top jobs, big research
grants, and personal prestige and reputation. It is incredibly hard for new
findings and new ideas to get a hearing in the wider scientific community, or
for old, discredited theories like neo-Darwinism and reductionist, mechanistic
biology in general to die. And all the more so when the old guard are backed by
big corporations that have taken over every sector of society including our
most sacred and revered academic institutions  The Corporate Take Over
of Science (ISIS News 7/8).
Corporate interests have so
thoroughly infiltrated our academic institutions that scientists are no longer
free to work for the public good or tell the truth, or do anything new and
exciting. Honest scientists who insist on doing so are persecuted and
victimised, and by their own academic institutions that should be protecting
and defending them.
Science that is not free stultifies
the imagination on which the advancement of science depends. We need good,
independent, and creative science to help exit the global financial crisis, not
to mention the food crisis, health crisis, and climate change. Liberating
science is top priority for the survival of people and planet.
The Institute of Science in Society
(ISIS) was founded in 1999 to provide critical yet
accessible scientific information to the public and policy makers, to reclaim
science for the public good, and to promote accountability and sustainability
in science and science policies. My husband Peter Saunders and I, both academic
scientists, felt that science was too important to be left just to
popularisers, philosophers, or social scientists lacking a thorough grounding in
science. In particular, the reductionist paradigm derived from classical
physics has outlived its usefulness and doing great harm to people and planet.
We felt it was high time to go beyond to an organic, holistic perspective consonant
with quantum physics that can enable us to live sustainably with nature;
specifically by integrating our human economy into the circular economy (or
thermodynamics) of nature (see  The Rainbow and the Worm, The
Physics of Organisms, ISIS publication, and  Living, Green and
Circular, SiS 53). Our main focus is
science, how to save science, - for the love of science is what made us
scientists in the first place - and how to make science work for society, for
people and planet.
ISIS produces lively reports posted on its
popular website www.i-sis.org.uk,
archived by the British Library since 2009 as part of UK’s national documentary
heritage. The reports are circulated to a large e-mail list that includes all
sectors of civil society worldwide, from small farmers in India to
policy-makers in the United Nations. We publish an attractively illustrated,
trend-setting quarterly art/science magazine Science in Society, and
topical in-depth, influential, and timely reports as well as monographs.
Our latest campaign to Reclaim Beauty and
Truth in Science and Art, Quantum Jazz Biology, Medicine,
and Art , waslaunched in a unique
art/science event 26-27 March 2011. A wholefoods factory was transformed
overnight into an art gallery and music/lecture hall around the theme of ‘quantum
jazz’, the sublime aesthetic of quantum coherence in living systems and the
living universe. For our next act, we are presenting Colours of Water, a
festival inspired by water 12-28 March 2013 at the Menier Gallery in London
(further details on: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/coloursofwater/).
There will be exhibitions, conferences, workshops and multimedia performances
by an amazing international cast of artists, scientists, musicians, and other
social leaders, all convinced that the science and art of water hold the key to
a social transformation towards the organic paradigm. Come and make the
revolution happen; you are all invited.
Liberating science is
obviously very important; but more so, liberating the imagination, which is why
we take art and science together so seriously. Scientists, especially the greatest
scientists are motivated by the beauty of the natural order of things. So
intensely felt is the love for the beauty of a scientific theory that some
scientists don’t seem to care whether the theory happens to be true.
Fortunately, really beautiful theories tend to be true, in the sense that their
predictions can be tested and confirmed empirically. Indian-born American
astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), recipient of the 1983
Nobel Prize for his work on the evolution of stars, made the case in his book Truth
and Beauty, Aesthetics and Motivation in Science published 1987. In my own
essay inspired by his thesis  Why
Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty (SiS 50), I argue that the same love
of beauty and truth (authenticity) motivates the best artists as much as the
best scientists, and hence art and science are completely congruent in that
respect. It also seems entirely obvious that nothing can be really understood
without being deeply felt, and so a scientist has to be a romantic poet at
heart, just as the artist in quest of truth and authenticity must have a
scientist’s intuition of coherence and concordance.
my essay, I stress that transcendence of the mundane is a hallmark of beauty in
both science and art. That’s why one should be wary of educationalists who
insist on reducing science and mathematics to prosaic everyday experience. That’s
also why we should hang onto that dumb inspiration, the sublime feeling of
beauty that leaves you lost for words; for that’s what fires the imagination
towards great scientific theories and works of art.
stultifies and stifles the imagination. Without imagination (and intuition),
real science is impossible. Intuition is the ability to perceive something
immediately without conscious reasoning. Imagination goes one step further: it
is the ability to bring to mind images and ideas that are not immediately
present to the senses. It is to take off on a flight of fancy to purvey the
entire universe in your mind’s eye.
(1879-1955) said of discovering the laws of physics : “There is no logical
way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of
intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the
(1918-1988) was among the greatest scientists of the 20th century,
and perhaps the most imaginative. In a monumental book The Character of
Physical Law, which lays bare the profound mysteries of the physical universe
and its uneasy relationship to mathematics for the uninitiated, he wrote :
“A new idea is extremely difficult to think of. It takes a fantastic
William Ian Beardmore Beveridge
(1908-2006) in The Art of Scientific Investigation published in 1957
said : “Facts and ideas are dead in themselves, and it is the imagination
that gives life to them.” (It goes without saying that you must also follow
imagination with rational thought to succeed.)
Science and imagination go together,
and the only way to ensure they stay together is to have an education that
includes both science and art, whatever the specialization. Many universities
in the United States already require a course on calculus for those majoring in
the arts and humanities and art courses for scientists. Richard Feynman is a
wonderful role model; not only did he play the bongo drums and other musical
instruments superbly; he also learned to paint well enough to put on a one-man
show, turned himself into an expert on Mayan culture on demand, became a critic
of science education, a biologist if only briefly, a lock-picker, and many
other things in response to challenges and opportunities that came his way .
How to liberate science &
How can we liberate science and the
imagination? We need to promote openness and transparency above all. Public
debates over scientific disagreements should be encouraged, and in terms that
the public can understand. Critical science literacy should be promoted for the
public as well as policy-makers, so that it is not just the word of one
‘expert’ against another. Politicians should never fall into the trap of
assuming that what the majority of scientists say must be right. Never trust
politicians who are science illiterate. Science should be evidence-based for
all to judge for themselves. There is nothing special about scientific
evidence. It is like any other kind of evidence, and must be judged
We need to support ‘mavericks’ and
‘dissenters’, for they are most likely the real innovators. Unfortunately, they
are often isolated, if not ostracized, as the trend is to support bigger and
bigger groups doing conventional and often boring and useless research. Every
group should include people who go beyond the status quo, and indeed,
research proposals should be judged by how far they go beyond the status quo,
because that’s what doing science is all about. True scientists are radicals at
Finally, scientists should be
working closely with those whom their research most directly affects, for
example, agricultural scientists should be working closely with farmers.
Scientists should be encouraged to take part in solving real problems for
You will no doubt say: How can
scientists get the funding they need and still remain free and independent?
There has been a suggestion of a
levee on industry to support independent research on risks of products that
they are promoting. In my view, the independence and freedom of scientists to
publish and tell the truth must be guaranteed by law, no matter who is
supporting their research. This is beneficial for all concerned, especially in
the long run.
have been asked if we can ever ensure that science is used for democratic and socially
just aims while it is being used (and funded) by a capitalist system (see  Mae-Wan
Ho on Science and Democracy, SiS 51). My answer is: It depends on what you call a
capitalist system. Is a cooperative system of collective ownership capitalist?
Is a system in which a few corporations control the whole world an inevitable
outcome of capitalism? I very much take the view that given the right kind of
science, say, an organic science fully acknowledging the cooperation and
reciprocity that sustain nature (as opposed to the current reductionist paradigm
of competition and exploitation), the appropriate political system will emerge
to guarantee that science will be used for democratic and socially just ends.
In summary, in order to
liberate science and the imagination, we must
science and art education together regardless of specialization, in order to
create a science-literate society
openness and transparency in the practice of science
independent scientists to tell the truth by law
of interest from regulatory agencies
peer review and open debates on scientific disagreements
commercial confidentiality on any matter regarding safety
more funding to risk research
innovation by encouraging challenges to conventional approaches
citizen’s review on science funding.
Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream of Nightmare?
The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Third World
Network, Gateway Books, MacMillan, Continuum, Penang, Malaysia, Bath, UK,
Dublin, Ireland, New York, USA, 1998, 1999, 2007 (reprint with extended
Introduction). http://www.i-sis.org.uk/genet.php http://www.i-sis.org.uk/genet.php
Ho MW and Lim LC. The Case for a GM-Free
Sustainable World, Independent Science Panel Report, Institute of
Science in Society and Third World Network, London and Penang, 2003;
republished GM-Free, Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure
the Integrity of Our Food Supply, Vitalhealth Publishing, Ridgefield,
Ct., 2004 (both available from ISIS online bookstore http://www.i-sis.org.uk/onlinestore/books.php#1)
Ho MW, Bunyard P, Saunders PT, Bravo E and Gala R.
ISIS and TWN, London and Penang, 2006.