Skewed Science

Scientists are being forced to work for corporations, and against the rest of us

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 17th December 1998.

I think the vice-chancellors of Britain’s universities were expecting to be congratulated when they announced this week that they would no longer take money for cancer research from the tobacco industry. Most people would surely wonder why on earth they were taking it in the first place. Perhaps their next announcement will inform us that Saddam Hussein will no longer be funding their human rights research.

Today, there is scarcely a science faculty in the United Kingdom whose academic freedom has not been compromised by its funding arrangements. Our research departments have been offered for sale, with the result that objectivity and intellectual honesty are becoming surplus to requirements.

Take research into energy, for example. The sociologist David Whyte has shown how a prominent energy research faculty decided not to challenge falsified accident figures provided by an oil company, in order to keep faith with the industry from which it received its funds. He has seen how faculties taking oil money have deliberately played down the industry’s long-term prospects, thereby helping to persuade the government neither to increase taxes, nor to impose new health and safety regulations.

Universities tend to make light of complaints like this, arguing that business funds only a small proportion of their research. Far more comes from the government, which, they tell us, fosters an environment in which intellectual curiosity can wander unconstrained by commercial imperatives. That might once have been the case. But, since 1994, the government has channelled an increasing proportion of its research budget through something called the Foresight Programme, whose purpose is to ensure that British science meets the needs of industry. Far from filling the gaps left by commercial funding, it boosts the research programmes most likely to receive business sponsorship.

Yesterday, Peter Mandelson launched his White Paper on Competitiveness, which will strengthen the links between science and business. On Tuesday, he announced an extension to the Foresight Programme. Science which cannot answer the immediate needs of commerce is in danger of extinction.

The Foresight Programme scarcely pretends to promote either academic objectivity or the public interest. Its Agriculture and Forestry panel, which decides which faculties get government grants, is supposed to encourage research, among other topics, into “the effects of land use on the environment” and rural employment. Yet, while the National Farmer’s Union, The Pig Improvement Company and Zeneca Agrochemicals are all represented on the panel, it contains just one member of a university department and no one from a trades union, an environmental group or any other voluntary body.

Eight members of the Food and Drink Foresight panel come from food companies and trade bodies, and two from universities. It has decided that its duties include “demonstrating the health benefits to the consumer of new technologies employed – for example, genetic modification”. Its sub-group on alcohol wants to “guide … consumers” towards an “understanding of the risks and benefits of components of fermented drinks, including alcohol”. Doctors and health charities might wonder whether alcohol HAS any medical benefits, but a regrettable oversight ensured that they weren’t able to contribute: the Foresight report on the funding of alcohol research emerged from a consultation with five trade bodies, three trade-sponsored research institutes, and 15 drinks companies.

The Foresight Programme, the government assures us, is just one component of its science funding. The Research Councils, by contrast, exist to ensure that the majority of government funding is untainted by commercial interests, and guided only by the pursuit of good research. Perhaps we could invest rather more faith in its assurances, were the Director-General of the Research Councils not the former research director of BP, or the Science Minister the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s.

Lord Sainsbury’s task is to ensure that science funding reflects the needs of science, rather than just industry, but, according to the Department of Trade and Industry’s website, he also chairs the “Food Chain Group”, whose purpose is to ensure that government funding for science reflects the special needs of the food industry. A Sainsbury’s representative sits on the Food and Drink Foresight panel. Sainsbury’s is funding the public consultation Peter Mandelson launched this week, whose purpose is to see whether ordinary people feel that British science is representing their interests.

Science tells us who we are and how we can live better. It is the medium through which we perceive the world. But business now stands as a guard dog at the gates of perception. Only the inquiries which suit its needs will be allowed to pass.