February 26, 2013, by Beverley Gibbs

Rebuttal to “The privatisation of science is not in the public interest”

Photo by 'Image Editor'This post reproduces the main arguments I used when I argued against Alex’s motion that “The privatisation of science is not in the public interest” at the launch of the ‘Making Science Public’ programme at the University of Nottingham on 11th February 2013.  Alex opened with his argument and I responded along the following lines.  I conclude with some reflection our two posts. Video capture of these opening statements and the subsequent questions and comments from the audience, chair Adam Smith (from Research Fortnight/Research Europe), myself and Alex can be found here. Please, join in the debate! ———————————————————————————- Responding to ‘The privatisation of science is not in the public interest’ First, looking at the first part of the statement – the very notion of the privatisation of science is misleading. It assumes science has been mainly produced in the public sector and privatisation is a deviation from this norm, when in fact, it’s publicly-funded science that is the historical aberration. It is only war – particularly the Second World War and the Cold War – that firmly established scientific research as a public activity. Even now, for every £1 spent by Government, Research Councils and charities on scientific research, £1.67 is spent by private industry. Turning to the second part – privatisation is not in the public interest. This simply assumes that publicly funded science is (in the public interest).  Privatisation is often judged on the basis of it being about outsourcing or a change in ownership that delivers profit to the private sector in order to transfer risk from the state sector, and that this is inherently harmful to the production of science. But there are many things about the government sector that make it inconsistent with the conduct of science – slow decision-making processes, risk-averse culture and a lack of access to capital, particularly for anything other than ‘Big Science’ by which I mean big labs, big staff, big kit and big budgets like the LHC at £7bn or the International Space Station – £80bn in the last 15 years. Projects that are difficult to regulate and highly elitist. What else does government mean by ‘science’?  Warfare.  20% of government funded R&D supports military pursuits (a proportion which historically far exceeds that spent on health) – regardless of who owns the labs, Government wholly facilitates this market, firstly by funding research and then in buying the products (pdf on UK military R&D from SGR here). Third, the proposition assumes that we already know and share a view on what is the public interest – it must be whatever government does. But, how can this be known without mechanisms for meaningful social and ethical feedback?   Are we to accept that one-off dialogues sponsored by a research funder are more meaningful than ongoing, live, dynamic public response to commercial activity that brings a concrete application to market, allowing meaningful judgment of its means and ends? How can we even start to explore the public good when publics are given nothing around which to articulate their voice? Fourth, it assumes that only the public sector can nurture autonomy and scientific freedom and that this entails basic research without concerns about impact. This linear model of innovation is at least 70 years old and really, we have known for over 30 years that it is not exclusive – applied technologies can lead to new science too. There are also plenty of examples of basic research funded within industry – the Dupont Experimental Station (Delaware) which produced not only a whole range of synthetics materials but synthesised crown ethers (earning Charles Pedersen a 1987 Nobel prize for Chemistry in the process), development of high temperature superconductivity at the IBM labs and the relationship between the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics in the first human genome sequencing. Finally, the statement assumes a clear boundary between public and private. But this boundary is blurry, inconsistent, frequently breached and historically has been quite unstable. This does not mean that modern forms of private, commercial science are just like those of 100 years ago, merely that the boundary has never been clear. The National Physical Laboratory – the UK’s largest applied physics research organisation, and the UK’s first institutional binding of state funding and scientific research  – has moved around this boundary in its 110 year history.  First it was under the direction of the Royal Society,  then a Government Department, an agency, a GOCO, and from 2014 looks set to be operated by a – shall we say – potentially less commercial consortium of universities and government. Context changes everything, and I suggest that broad brush arguments as to the name and ownership of science are less important than questions of degree, scope and scale. We are right to be concerned about the possible detrimental effects of private interests in science but really – is a political hand inherently better than an economic one? ———————————————————————– On reflection, I note three points from our posts that are related to where we chose to anchor our positions, and I hope teasing them out will be helpful in situating further debate. Firstly, to me privatisation is a question of economic organisation so I deliberately focussed on the question of ‘Who Pays?’.  Much prevalent discourse (including Alex’s post) immediately associates this with the neoliberal political philosophy, in particular free markets. Whilst the two are closely associated, not all privatisation is exercised in order to construct a competitive market.  Sometimes (as mentioned in my second paragraph) it is operational flexibility that is being sought and much publicly funded science is protected form market forces even when it is privatised. Secondly, quite clearly Alex locates science in Universities whereas I locate it outside Universities in research organisations and industry. This is an important distinction in our statements and both our choices play to the particular strengths of our arguments but realistically science is performed in all of these environments.  I agree that the privatisation of research in Universities is problematic for a number of reasons – it undermines the public role of higher education (as Alex outlines) but also it distorts what I would defend as a perfectly legitimate external (free) market for more applied scientific research. Thirdly, I agree that markets are not the same as publics, but we cannot deny that publics are frequently formed around what the sociologist of science Michael Callon called the ‘economic spillover’.   Only commerce can make science material enough to spark autonomous publics into forming on their own terms rather than as something envisaged by a policy-maker. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the help of Dr.Sujatha Raman in ordering my messy opinions into something suitable for a 4 minute debate statement, and please do not assume this necessarily means she agrees with any of them.

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