Does it matter that the activity of science across the world at the moment is overwhelmingly in the hands of commercial interests? So long as the science is done, who cares?
Well, James Lovelock might care. Britain’s most independent scientist (an appellation the man is rightly fond of, and proud of) isn’t restricted in what he researches, is able to use his intuition, instinct and massive experience to answer questions other scientists wouldn’t think of. Recently he said of his position, “In most nations of the developed world, they rule out the greater and more interesting parts of hands-on science. True, it might be possible for a present-day Descartes, Einstein or Newton to think and use paper or a PC to record and expand their thoughts, but a Faraday or a Darwin would be buried in paperwork and obliged to spend their time solving problems concerning health and safety, and political correctness, today’s equivalent of the theocratic oppression of Galileo. In the world of corporate science there would be little time left for their singular and breath-taking ideas.”
With the vast majority of science now done to make money for a small elite who exist inside commercial and corporate structures, what does this mean for the future? It could be worse than you think. Take the issue of hybrid corn. In decades past, a farmer who used a particularly good strain of corn would keep back a small proportion of seed to plant for the following year. In this way, further in the past, and over a longer time period, agriculturalists did experiments with genetics, creating strains of corn that best suited the needs of the communities they lived in. But hybrid seeds, which now flood the world via the companies that make them, have one crucial difference. Though they give larger yields, because they are hybrids they never breed true. And that means a farmer has to buy seed every year from a company. This then is the main reason for the flood of hybrid varieties. Under the cover of offering a larger yield, the agricultural world – that is, all our food production – is owned by commerce.
This to my mind does not seem right. And the example given above can be extended to many other vitally important area, not least health.
Erich Fromm saw the dangers decades ago, when the level of commercial control was much less. One of his suggestions for a humane future was to break the deeply unhealthy link between science and commerce by creating an independent science auditing structure. This would of course have an additional benefit, since so much of the damage done by capitalism has been on the planet’s ecosystems. It has long been a call from environmentalists that the future consequences of any scientific development be factored into the cost and ethics of making that development.
But as James Lovelock said: “You mustn’t take what I say as gospel because no one can second-guess the future.” So let’s get independent. Let’s listen to the planet, not to money, which makes people the juvenile dependents of its corporate culture.