Science in Society Archive

Mae-Wan Ho on Science and Democracy

Interview by Emma Hughes of Red Pepper magazine

RP: Can you give a brief description of the role of Science in Society, and explain the need for your organisation?

MWH: Science is central to every aspect of our everyday lives and our wellbeing, be it to do with climate change, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), 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, as much as the arts and the humanities, needs to be thoroughly integrated into the social, cultural and political life of society; and science literacy is the key to 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 corporations more intent on profit than serving the public good, with scant regard for safety or sustainability. It has become increasingly difficult for people to get reliable and critical scientific information for society to decide not only the technologies to adopt, but more importantly, the scientific research to support, based on its social, ethical, environmental or 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. In my book, Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare first published in 1998, I argued how bad science - in the form of outmoded and discredited genetic determinism - has colluded with big business to bring us the ‘brave new world’ of GMOs and animal and human cloning.

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, on account 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 scientific community, or for old, discredited theories like neo-Darwinism and reductionist biology 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.

Corporate interests have so thoroughly infiltrated our academic institutions that scientists are no longer free to work for the public good or to tell the truth. Honest scientists who insist on doing so are persecuted and victimised, and by their own academic institutions that should be protecting and defending them.

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. 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, we saw the need to shift away from the reductionist paradigm derived from classical physics that’s doing great harm to people and planet, to an organic, holistic perspective derived from quantum physics that can enable us to live sustainably with nature. I have written a book on that called The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms (first published in 1993, and now in its much enlarged 2008 3rd edition.) Our major focus is science and how to make science work for society, for people and planet.

About I-SIS

The Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS) was co-founded in 1999 by scientists Mae-Wan Ho and Peter Saunders to provide critical yet accessible and reliable information to the public and policy makers.

ISIS aims to reclaim science for the public good; to promote a contemporary, holistic science of the organism and sustainable systems; and influence social and policy changes towards a sustainable, equitable world. ISIS is a partner organisation of the Third World Network based in Penang, Malaysia, and works informally with many scientists who are members of ISIS or of the Independent Science Panel that ISIS initiated (see below).       

ISIS works through lively reports posted on its popular website, 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 magazine Science in Society, and topical in-depth, influential, and timely reports (see below) as well as monographs including Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare (1998, 1999, 2000, 2007), Living with the Fluid Genome (2003), Unravelling AIDS (2005), The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, 3rd edition (2008) .

I-SIS also initiates major campaigns from time to time:

World Scientists Open Letter, February 1999, calling for a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) organisms, ban on patents on life, and support for sustainable agriculture; eventually signed by 828 scientists from 84 countries

Independent Science Panel, constituted May 2003, consists of dozens of scientists from many disciplines. Its report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, calling for a ban on GM crops and a comprehensive shift to sustainable agriculture was presented in the UK Parliament and European Parliament, circulated worldwide, and translated into 5 or more languages.

Sustainable World Global Initiative, launched April 2005,, held its first international conference 14/15 July 2005 in UK Parliament, followed by a weekend workshop 21 January 2006, out of which came a proposal for an innovative food and energy self-sufficient ‘Dream Farm 2’ for demonstration/education/research purposes. A first report, Which Energies? was published in 2006; followed by a second definitive report, Food Futures Now (2008) showing how organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can provide food and energy security and free us from fossil fuels. The third and final report, Green Energies (2009) sets the realistic target for 100 percent renewable energies by 2050 and documents how all countries can achieve that goal with existing, rapidly improving technologies.

Reclaiming Beauty and Truth in Science and Art, was launched in a unique art/science event 26-27 March 2011, when a wholefoods factory was transformed overnight into an art gallery and music/lecture hall around the theme of ‘quantum jazz’, the sublime aesthetics of quantum coherence in living systems and the living universe  The event was marked by a commemorative volume of essays and artworks, Celebrating ISIS, Quantum Jazz Biology *Medicine*Art, a Quantum Jazz Art DVD of artworks with a special selection of music, plus four DVDs of performances and interviews at the actual event itself.

RP: Currently who controls science – citizens or corporates?

MWH: Corporations, definitely.

RP: Can you give an example of corporate influence over science?

MWH: Examples abound, perhaps most clearly and happening now over the safety of GMOs, and the cancer risks of mobile phones where vested interests are allowed to declare the products safe, and to set exposure standards (to herbicides and microwaves) as high as possible, at levels way beyond those known to be unsafe. Our regulators are letting companies like Monsanto conduct their own research and risk assessment on GMOs to ascertain that they are ‘as safe as their non-GM counterparts’; their raw data protected by ‘commercial confidentiality’, and their interpretation of the data arbitrary to say the least. These companies literally have a monopoly over the science of GMOs. Furthermore, they have a monopoly over the GMOs themselves, and would not allow them to be used for proper research. Scientists whose findings cast doubt over the safety of GMOs are invariably subject to personal attack, and many lose their grants, their labs, or risk losing their university jobs.

RP: Do you think initiatives like 'science wise' in the UK have improved democratic control of science?

MWH: No, because it has not really opened science up to debate. (I’ve never heard of it before you mentioned it to me.) The very concept of ‘Expert Resource Centre’ is enough to raise public distrust, and looks like an attempt by the government to control scientific information. The public are saying: “It is the experts who got us in the mess in the first place.”  Science is not about certainty, and there isn’t one ‘right answer’ that applies for all times and circumstances. We have to weigh up the evidence, and make our own judgement, and most importantly, take a precautionary approach in case of something that when it goes wrong, can be catastrophic. Nuclear energy and GMOs are examples. Both the collection of data and the interpretation of findings are much more nuanced than generally perceived, and open to much manipulation. Unless and until the public and our policymakers really understand science and take science seriously, there can be no democratic control of science.

RP: How do we need to organise science in the UK to ensure it is deployed in as democratic and socially progressive way as possible?

MWH: We need to promote openness and transparency. Public debates over scientific disagreements should be encouraged, and in terms that the public can understand. (This is just the opposite of what Science Wise tries to do.)  Critical science literacy should be promoted for the public as well as policy-makers, so that it is not the word of one ‘expert’ against another. 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 judged accordingly.

We need to support ‘mavericks’ and ‘dissenters’, who are often isolated, if not ostracized, as the trend is to support bigger and bigger groups doing rather conventional research. Every group needs someone that goes beyond the status quo, that’s what doing science is all about. True scientists are radicals at heart, as they are always questioning the status quo.

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 society. I feel very optimistic for science just now, especially in renewable energies. There is a great deal of creativity blossoming in areas like ‘cold fusion’, which was a general term of derision used by the scientific establishment not so long ago. It is a real alternative to nuclear energy, and though not entirely renewable, is nonetheless much more safe and sustainable, and can even contribute to making nuclear wastes safe.

RP: Can you explain some of the politics of science in the global south (if you'd like to focus on a particular region pls do).

MWH: Reductionist mechanistic science has had a devastating impact on the global south, especially in the form of monoculture crops of the Green Revolution, which have all but destroyed indigenous sustainable agricultural practices and indigenous agricultural biodiversity. Current GM crops are finishing off what’s left after the Green Revolution. The notorious Indian farmer suicides - a legacy of its Green Revolution exacerbated by the globalisation of trade in agricultural commodities - have been greatly accelerated by the introduction of GM cotton. Thankfully, there is now a general realization that a return to small scale organic agriculture based on indigenous crops and local knowledge is the real way forward to feeding the world and saving the climate.

RP: In what ways are people living in the South organising to resist corporate monopolisation of science?

MWH: Scientists in the south are uniting with their counterparts in the north to resist corporate monopolisation of science by spreading knowledge and sharing information via the internet, and working directly with farmers and other civil society organisations and honest politicians. ISIS’ postings have a worldwide readership that includes farmers as far as India, as well as policymakers and scientists. In particular we are taking the experiences of farmers themselves very seriously. They are direct witnesses of how GMOs are failing to deliver, and causing all kinds of problems: new pests, new diseases in crops, deaths, illnesses, miscarriages, and sterility in livestock and humans. Scientists are now learning not to dismiss this kind of ‘direct witness’ evidence.  But regulators are still shamefully hiding behind the ‘only peer-reviewed scientific publications count as evidence’ façade (except when it comes to unpublished studies from industry, which are favoured over peer-reviewed studies by independent scientists), while scientific journals have come perilously close to being trade journals for the biotech industry. Journals including Nature have been caught in attempts to discredit honest scientists.

RP: Can you give some examples from the South of citizen science?

MWH: The closest is MASIPAG, a scientists and farmers organisation in the Philippines that have strongly resisted Green Revolution monocultures and GMOs, and promoting sustainable agriculture while recovering indigenous agricultural varieties, especially for rice cultivation. Citizen groups in the south have also organised for scientists in the north to submit evidence to their regulators to resist the approval of GMOs, the most successful recent example is the moratorium on planting GM brinjal (eggplant) in India, after it was approved by India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee riddled with vested US interests.

RP: How can science obtain the money it needs for research and still remain independent?

MWH: 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.

RP: How effective are science journalists at holding science to account?

MWH: I don’t think the notion of holding science to account has entered the mainstream of science journalism. All too often, they just reproduce what scientists tell them. The notion that science can be good or bad is still foreign to most journalists.

RP: Why are 'the left' so often characterised as 'anti-science', and how can 'the left' claim science as a tool in the fight for social justice?

MWH: If the left is often characterised as anti-science, it is because they are anti-reductionist science; and the scientific establishment loves to call anyone disagreeing with them anti-science. The left needs to embrace holistic non-reductionist science, which it has yet to do, because it erroneously equates holistic science with non-materialism. The left needs to embrace organic materialism rather than mechanical materialism.

RP: What should the key demands be in a campaign for democratic and responsible science?

MWH: I can think of a few things just off the top of my head:

· Protect  honest, independent scientists to tell the truth by law

· Remove conflict of interest from regulatory agencies

· Support open peer review and open debates on scientific disagreements

· Reject commercial confidentiality on any matter regarding safety

· Allocate much more funding to risk research

· Introduce open citizen’s review on science funding

RP: Can we ever ensure science is used for democratic and socially just aims while it is being used (and funded) by a capitalist system?

MWH: 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? Here, I very much take the view that given the right kind of science, for example, an organic science based on the cooperation and reciprocity that sustain nature (as opposed to the current reductionist approach based on competition and exploitation), the appropriate political system will emerge to guarantee that science will be used for democratic and socially just ends.

Article first published 07/09/11

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There are 6 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Benjamin Edom Comment left 8th September 2011 01:01:42
A brilliant and telling article. I agree with all main points and particularly your key demands for democratic and responsible science. You have made great strides in renewing my faith in scientists. Many thanks.

Simon Hodges Comment left 8th September 2011 05:05:08
The depth of your physics is shown in your clarity on social and economic issues. Organic materialism hits the nail on the head. I have been spellbound by the Rainbow and the Worm (my physics education extends to A-level) and this is more proof of your brilliant, courageous mind. Am spreading far and wide. Simon

Todd Millions Comment left 16th September 2011 18:06:18
Exellent- One caveat-A levee on industry to pay for indipendent research. Sin taxes are a canadian specialty-but Goverments get very addicted to such vice revenue very fast.So they do much to protect the vices.

Matthew Colborn Comment left 23rd September 2011 20:08:02
I agree strongly with most of what you've said, especially about corporate science not being open or democratic. I've read the 'Rainbow and the Worm,' and whilst I think that these holistic views seem a vast improvement on reductionist materialism, I still do not think they go far enough as far as consciousness is concerned. e.g. the gap between phenomenological states and holistic physical states still seems wide to me. Second, if we insist that the 'left' adopt a particular ideology, even a holistic one, aren't we still imposing one monolothic point of view on people? I think that people and groups should be just as free to decide for themselves on scientific issues as on others.If they are not, you're still acting like a power elite. Replacing a dogma of reductionist materialsim with one of holistic materialism just seems like a swapping of dogmas to me, and not a truly open or democratic process. One alternative is a pluralistic approach that welcomes a diversity of views and accepts dissent.

Mike Mortier Comment left 16th October 2011 06:06:18
Thank God for courageous and humane scientists like Mae-Wan Ho. Science must be controlled by democracy just as the business world and even religion must be if we are to make progress to a more just, cooperative and safe planet. I’m 76 years young and I know it can be done, provided we all support people like Ms. Ho. P.S. I loved her book ‚The Rainbow and the Worm‘, even though the thermodynamics gave me a headache!

George Hewitt Comment left 8th November 2014 09:09:12
Excellent article. I am a STEM Ambassador - talk to Year 10 and up pupils - to try and address the shortage of Engineers and other scientific/technicial expertise. I will quote from this article at my next talk, next Tuesday.