Earlier this year, ISIS was sent some free tickets to a "Westminster
Fringe Debate", sponsored by the Stockholm Network and the Economist
magazine. The motion for debate was "Democratisation of science would not
be in the public interest", and a note on the invitations explained what the
organisers had in mind:
"Science is driven by curiosity. Would any attempt to put that under
greater public scrutiny deaden scientific inquiry or must scientists now come
to terms with the fears and priorities of society at large? And is public
accountability a meaningful concept in science? Scientists may not know what
they are going to discover when they start experimenting or to what use it may
ultimately be put. Are the public qualified to determine the priorities of
scientific research? Is that untrammelled freedom for science out of date and
That made us more than a bit suspicious as it sounded like someone
setting up a straw man so it could be knocked down. Scientists are driven by
curiosity, but they are also driven by ambition, profit, by a burning desire to
benefit humankind, and other motives good and bad. Above all, doing science
costs money, which means that the priorities are inevitably influenced, and in
far too many cases actually set, by whoever controls the funding.
So when we speak about the democratisation of science, we do not mean
allowing influences from outside science to determine research priorities. That
already happens. The question is who does the influencing. Should it be just
business, industry and the large foundations, or can the rest of us ordinary
citizens have a say as well?
We were not surprised to find Lord Taverne opposing democracy in science
(see Box) but we were dismayed to find the Chief Executive of the UK Medical
Research Council (MRC), Colin Blakemore, on the same side.
Lord Dick Taverne chairs the pro-GM lobby group the Association of Sense
about Science, and is author of The March of Unreason (2005), a book
attacking the environmental movement for being anti-GM and anti-science. He
himself has no background in science, which may be why he has been championing
biotechnology as though thats all there is to science.
Sense about Science, set up in 2002 ahead of the UKs public debate
on the commercial growing of GM crop, promotes its pro-GM views to peers, MPs
and the media; its numerous funders include corporations, institutes and
individuals with interests in biotech.
Does Blakemore believe there are no important influences from outside
science that determine the priorities for research? The very existence of a
separate funding agency with money earmarked for medical research is proof of
that. Or does he believe only that the public should be excluded? We put those
questions to him during the discussion but were left unclear as to exactly
where he stands.
Blakemore argued that Crick and Watson would not have been able to do
their work if the public had been able to direct their research. He had to be
reminded that while this was hypothetical, history tells us that they certainly
wouldnt have been allowed to do it if the MRC, the body he now heads, had
known what they were up to. Fortunately, the MRC didnt find out until it
was too late.
Against the motion were Ian Gibson MP, the chair of the House of Commons
Select Committee on Science and Technology, and Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist
at University College London and Scientist in Residence at the Institute for
Contemporary Arts. They put the case for democracy well, but to our
astonishment, the motion was carried; possibly because the audience was not
exactly a random sample of the population. So we decided to look into it.
It turns out that the Stockholm Network, which co-sponsored the debate,
describes itself as "a network of 120 market-oriented think tanks in Europe and
further afield." It is listed on the home page of a larger network, the Atlas
Economic Research Foundation, an American organisation based near Washington.
Atlas "brings freedom to the world by helping develop and strengthen a network
of market-oriented think tanks that spans the globe," and its vision is, "To
achieve a society of free and responsible individuals, based on property
rights, limited government under the rule of law, and the market order."
One of Atlas major activities is its Templeton Freedom Awards
Program, which aims to promote the advance of economic freedom and "the virtues
that support successful capitalist economies". The awards are funded by the
John Templeton Foundation that also spends a lot of money supporting research
into connections between religion and science. You may have seen the recent
announcement of a $2 million initial grant for a centre at Oxford, headed by
Susan Greenfield, to explore the physiological basis of beliefs; one of its
first projects will be an investigation into whether people cope with pain
differently depending on their faith.
I dont doubt that some scientists are genuinely interested in such
questions; different scientists are interested in many different things. But
the reason this research is going ahead when other projects are not is that the
directors of a wealthy foundation want it done. Are people who happen to have a
lot of money qualified to determine the priorities of scientific research? Even
if you think they are, does that count as untrammelled freedom for the
Science cant help but be influenced by the society in which it is
done. This influence can be democratic, with public participation in setting
priorities, or it can be the preserve of small, powerful groups. It is perhaps
not surprising that those who want society to be based on property rights and
the market should be opposed to democracy in science as well.