ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

14 June 2002

Can Science Be Directed? - The debate
Tuesday 30 April 2002 at 7.30pm
Held at the Royal Insitution London (excerpts)

Vandana Shiva: The most important way in which science has been directed is through funding. What science does, where it goes, what it produces, is very much a function of what money goes into it.

Much of the science that evolved in the grand institutions like the one in which we stand tonight redefined dramatically what would be counted as knowledge. The sciences of ancient cultures like China and India were put into the non-science category. Today large numbers of people in the world are turning to disciplines like Ayurvedic medicine, yet for 200 years they have not been funded in the West.

The recent speech of Tony Blair shows how science is being directed. Mr Blair  justified his speech as being inspired from my country. He said he met a group of academics in Bangalore who told him:  "Europe has gone soft on science. We are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out." He said they saw Britain as overrun by protesters and pressure groups who use emotion to drive out reason.

Frankly, no Indian speaks that language, even in the biotech industry. The commercialisation of science is having a heavy impact on the institutions of Bangalore. Monsanto is harvesting the best work in Indian molecular biology through the  Institute of Science and we have had students sitting on the lawns wanting that agreement made public. Britain does not have a special protest tendency. Irresponsibly introduced biotech has a habit of generating protests wherever it goes.

Science is being directed by invisible actors, and it is interesting that not once in his speech did Mr Blair mention the real  actors on whose behalf he is speaking. The privatisation of science is going to destroy what little fragile internal democracy science has.

Amartya Sen in New Scientist was saying that economics needs to be modelled on  science, and that science is based on give and take. You can't have science without sharing knowledge. A crisis of the new direction of science is that no thought has been applied to how to continue the give and take that makes knowledge grow. If we don't have a bigger debate on science you are going to see the end of science, and that is the real challenge.

Jeremy Webb, Editor, New Scientist: These days there seems to be no such thing as an independent scientist. Is the blurring of the lines between academia, government and industry causing a loss of public trust, and shouldn't we be stopping industry from buying up our best talent?

Vandana Shiva: The new partnerships that are emerging between science and business are very efficient at harvesting knowledge but they are useless at maintaining the generation of future knowledge. They do not nurture the social base in the scientific community or the political base beyond the scientific community. Science is a public enterprise and a social endeavour.  Wall Street can get good quarterly returns out of science, but Wall Street is a bad  director of science.

Steve Fuller: It would be good if science journalists as a rule looked into the financial and political interests of scientists who seem to be outspoken on various public issues, and make that a routine part of reporting. Once scientists know the impact that that exposure would have, maybe they would think twice about getting involved.

Audience Question: Peer review, the lifeblood of science, seems to become considerably more problematic for research that falls between disciplines. How do you address that?

Vandana Shiva: There is a suggestion that you don't really need publications any more. Let students go to patent offices and read patent applications. Having read many patent applications, I can tell you we will create generations of scientifically illiterate people, because patent applications are not about communicating science.

We need to address how science will be communicated in the new context of commercial science. The big worry for me is that fraudulent science used to be a fringe activity. Today it has become the dominant way in which facts are being generated, especially in biotech. There's no public check today on the difference between fraud and fact.
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