The Shrinking of Science

Reductionism is making science ever less relevant to our lives.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd March 1995.

We remember the pre-Enlightenment Church, if at all, for its solipsisms. While Europe tore itself apart with vicious wars, millions died of plague and starvation, and the relationships between master and serf were being traumatically redefined, its theologians debated such pressing matters as the colour of the devils in Hell or the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. While still enormously powerful, its incapacity to address the most urgent concerns of ordinary people meant that they were forced to look elsewhere for a solution to their problems.

My fear is that science, when we need its ministry and moral guidance more than ever before, is rendering itself just as peripheral to our concerns. While environmental crisis, social dislocation and burgeoning global poverty present us with problems perhaps more momentous than those faced by any previous generation, many of those we look to for help appear to be turning their gaze away from the world and onto their navels. For the life sciences – those that tell us about ourselves and about our world – are tilting towards blinkered reductionism.

Studies which most people would immediately identify as urgent -such as primary health care, ecology and conservation, the political and economic dimensions of social change – are being pushed into second place in many faculties by the less immediate demands of genetic and molecular science. The new reductionism not only imposes its shrinking view of existence upon research and teaching, but also threatens to change the way that all of us perceive ourselves and our surroundings.

There are several reasons for this re-focusing onto the sub-microscopic. It is, undeniably, an exciting realm. The ability to describe and manipulate the gene, to identify what purports to be a single cause for a pathology or want, while playing with some of science’s most sophisticated and effective equipment is, for some researchers, irresistible.

More pertinently, both funding and credibility flock towards molecular studies. Researchers and their departments obtain both commodities by means of their publications record. Molecular biology is easy to publish. Its protocol is straightforward, its results are clear and indisputable. Peer reviewers, the scientists who tell prestigious journals which papers are worthy of publication, find it hard to turn down a story with such a decisive beginning, middle and end. The precise passes through the keyhole, while the visionary is left hammering on the door.

The imbalance is exacerbated by changes in government funding. The 1993 White Paper on Science established that scientific funding would increasingly rely upon demonstrations that it was meeting the needs of commerce and industry, many of which make demands at the molecular level. Apart from general funding presumptions, an extra £9 million of the government’s money for biological research in the coming financial year is to be diverted to fund genetic and molecular studies.

Overall, by contrast to our competitors in the developed world, government funding for science in Britain is declining, and much of the money research councils once supplied is now being provided by charitable trusts. Many of these have limited aims, such as cancer research, and clear, unitary results understandably look to them like progress.

Science’s reductionism is everyone’s loss. We turn to scientists for an explanation of our problems and the means of overcoming them and instead get gene sequences. When we are foolish enough to accept these results as the comprehensive and unmodifiable truth, we swiftly begin to lose sight of ourselves. There are many scientists with courage and vision, who have appreciated the scale of our problems and are making real attempts to get to grips with them, but in the recriminatory atmosphere of narrow experimentalism, sticking your neck out can be a dangerous thing to do.

So, in medicine, for example, we now know everything there is to know about the molecular characteristics of some of the developing world’s diseases, yet in many cases this knowledge is of no practical use whatsoever. Most of the Third World’s poor need preventative medicine, sanitation and primary health care, not genetic screening or molecular reconstruction.
Simplistic answers to complex problems abound. Criminal psychology is buzzing with the search for criminal genes, while the study of factors such as community structure, employment and the urban environment is in danger of being edged into an impotent sidestream.

In no field is the problem more evident than in environmental science. Forests, for example, are disappearing because rural people are losing their livelihoods, land is being enclosed by governments and corporations and development is being organized for the benefit of developers rather than those ostensibly being developed. Yet research in some of our foremost forestry departments is turning towards gene hunting and molecular taxonomy.

These studies help foresters both to engage more lucratively with industry and to evade the politically sensitive questions they are often required to answer, but they are already diverting attention away from the real causes of forest loss. In biology, precious resources are being diverted into the Ozimandian folly of sequencing the entire human genome, just as the demand for studies of environmental change is booming.

Research priorities are necessarily reflected in the content of undergraduate courses. As departments take on genetics and molecular researchers, first the teaching staff and then the contents of the course are infiltrated. Oxford’s biology degree, for example, dropped its conservation option just as school leavers became fervently keen to take it. Some of our most prestigious life science degrees are now equipping their graduates to find excellent jobs in biotechnology, yet ill-preparing them to see where they and their science must engage with the wider world.

No institutions will lose out as much as the faculties themselves. Science is already characterized as remote and irrelevant by many people in Britain, and its repeated calls to be better understood ring hollowly from the bottom of the ever-deepening hole it is digging for itself.

There are signs that the heads of some departments are beginning to recognize the dangers of this minimalism, and many faculties and individuals are making real attempts to tackle science holistically. They need all the help they can get. Some of this must come from government. Corporations which require genes located or proteins constructed will get the work done without the taxpayer’s help: rather than widening the gaps left by the trusts and corporate employers, the government should be helping to fill them in.

Scientists themselves must learn to be braver. This is difficult now that many are on short-term contracts, which are often ill-suited to the long-term nature of the work they should be doing. They must recognize that few of the world’s problems have singlecauses or single solutions, and remember that objective research does not preclude political engagement. Molecular studies play a useful role in all the life sciences, but they must be regarded as a tool, rather than as an end in themselves. The world is best seen by the naked eye, not the sequencing machine.