Science is Dumbing Down

We Need a Revolution in our Universities

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th July 2000

Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime. Give him a giant trawler, furnished with the latest equipment, and he wipes out the fish stocks. Modern science, harnessed in theory to the second task, has instead been dedicated to the third.

The one billion pounds of extra science funding the government promised yesterday is long overdue. Between 1983 and 1999, public research money in Britain declined by 20 per cent. Government-funded PhD students currently reap the princely salary of £6500 a year. But while there is no question that the new money will be good for the careers of some researchers, it is less certain that it will benefit either the pursuit of knowledge itself or the welfare of the rest of us. For there is another commodity which scientists crave but which the government appears reluctant to supply: academic freedom.

In the past, government money filled the gaps left by corporate funding. While business would finance research with obvious commercial applications, the government would support “blue skies” science: work with no immediately profitable outcome. But the 1993 white paper on science and technology decreed that the government would seek “a better match between publicly-funded strategic research and the needs of industry.” The research councils, which distribute most of the government’s grants, would be chaired by business people. “Foresight Panels”, mostly composed of industrialists, would “identify … emerging opportunities in markets”. The Office of Science and Technology was dragged into the Department of Trade and Industry, to ensure that science became subordinate to wealth creation.

The Labour government has pushed science still further into the arms of business. The higher education funding councils, it insists, must “ensure that higher education is responsive to the needs of business and industry.” Last week, its science minister Lord Sainsbury – to whom blue skies research appears to mean finding better ways of flying in french beans from Zimbabwe – held a conference with scientists called “Knowledge Means Business”, to explore new methods of tethering university research to commercial imperatives.

As a result of all these changes, funding for neutral scholarship has all but dried up. The scientific agenda has shrunk. Some of the best brains in Britain are now deployed to find new means of ripping us off. The government’s foresight panels, for example, have demanded state money for studies of “the patterns of choice and behaviour which affect the consumption of certain goods.”

Paradoxically, the shrinking of science even damages competitiveness. Five times as much money is spent in British universities on research into oil and gas, for example, as on research into renewable energy, even though oil and gas is a mature industry whose reserves in the UK are running out, while renewable energy is just taking off. The oil companies which have captured the funding process are using it to extract as much value from their existing operations as possible, while retarding the development of new and threatening markets.

But the people who are harmed most by these funding constraints are, of course, the scientists. Science is in danger of being reduced to a search for new applications of existing knowledge, and its practitioners to mere technicians. The mapping of the human genome was a remarkable feat, but much of it consisted of the repetitive use of sophisticated machines. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as other researchers are funded to think. But science is dumbing down.

Public antagonism is an inevitable and rational response to these distortions. When thirty times more government money is spent on research into GM crops (which have no market) than on research into organic farming (for which demand is unmet), we know we’re being conned. The money is being channelled into genetic engineering for the simple reason that, unlike organic farming, the technology can be patented and controlled by the companies which run the research councils.

Tragically, many scientists have responded to criticism not by siding with the public against the prostitution of their profession, but by siding with their corporate backers against the public. With the help of a little imagination we should surely be working together, to ensure that the scientists get their freedom, while we get research which helps us rather than harming us. We need a revolution in our universities, to overthrow the corrupt new lords of learning .

In principle, the more money we spend on science, the better off we will be. But when public research is used for strictly private ends, it’s hard to see why we should fund it.