Feature Article - November 2008
by Do-While Jones

The Politics and Economics of Science

Itís not a hobby, itís a career.

Before the twentieth century, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, science was the exclusive domain of rich men. Independently wealthy men financed their own research. They studied whatever interested them. They wrote down whatever they learned, and presented their papers at meetings of royal societies, attended by other rich men who shared the same passion for science. Science was a hobby practiced by a privileged few.

By the end of the twentieth century, however, science became a career. I personally am glad of that because I would not have been able to support my science habit from my earnings playing the guitar. It is certainly a good thing that the pursuit of scientific knowledge has been opened up to the masses. The more scientists there are at work, the more will be learned. We could not have made the first trip to the moon without the cooperative effort of thousands of scientists whose salaries were paid (directly or indirectly) by the United States Government. Few people could afford to conduct as much medical research as national governments can. Most professional scientists today work for somebody else, doing whatever somebody else pays them to do.

Money Corrupts Science

Unfortunately, the benefits of science for money come at a high price. One might reasonably question the conclusions of a scientific study of the effects of smoking on health if that study was sponsored by the tobacco industry. Pharmaceutical companies routinely sponsor studies to determine the safety of drugs they intend to market, which might possibly influence the conclusion. It is possible that the conclusion of a study of global climate change might reflect the political views of whichever side paid for the study. If you want to keep getting paid, you have to keep the sponsor happy.

The Politics of Post-modern Evolution

We mention this because there were a few revealing paragraphs at the end of the Nature article on post-modern evolution that we wrote about last month. 1 Since we ran out of space last month, we had to cut out those paragraphs that mentioned outside economic and political influences that affected the conclusions drawn at the conference. Letís look at those paragraphs now.

Love saw the Altenberg meeting as an attempt to bridge the divide, but one that, by avoiding conflict (partly through invitations being declined), ended up a little one-sided. "Altenberg was an attempt to pull people together; the hard part was that it didn't pull in people who were less than sympathetic towards one another," he says. "It could have been a much more eraser-throwing meeting, but there is no reward for organizing that ó you don't get another grant by trying to get people in the same room, you just have to take time away from the lab or fieldwork." 2

The people at the Altenberg meeting were people who were pretty much in agreement before the meeting began. People who disagreed didnít attend because they didnít want the meeting to succeed. Through no fault of the meeting organizers, the meeting was biased, so the conclusions are likely to be biased.

Notice, too, that when money is uncertain (when you have to depend upon getting a grant every year or so), it becomes a factor in deciding what you do. If the choice is between getting your field research written up and presented to your sponsor on time, or going to a meeting, you write up the researchóespecially if you donít agree with the premise of the meeting.

Personalities play a part, too. In addition to the emotional satisfaction of ego, it is also true that it is easier to get your research funded if you are famous. But there is even more beyond that. You donít have to take our word for it. Here it is, straight from the horseís mouth.

And there are forces at play beyond jockeying for disciplinary prestige. Never mind what can happen and what did happen. What should happen? It's a fight that evolutionary theory ó rooted as it is in a world view shaped by Victorian capitalism ó has always found itself dragged into. To give one example, the championing of 'punctuated equilibrium' in the fossil record by Gould and Eldredge was easily construed by participants on both sides of the debate in the 1970s as an attack from the political left ó part of a broader rising of hackles at the arrival of sociobiology, selfish genes and the like. Evolutionary ideas and political metaphors still seem to seek each other out ó in an extended synthesis, says Gilbert, "the gene will be a much more constitutional monarch, taking instructions from the cell and environment".

Eva Jablonka of the University of Tel Aviv, Israel, is explicit about a political side to her work. Ö "There are social implications to our approach," says Jablonka. "Our way of looking at heredity and evolution counters genetic determinism and its political implications." 3

Scientific research always has social and political consequences to a greater or lesser degree. Evolutionary research is one of those areas where the social and political consequences are great. Clearly, from the two paragraphs quoted above, the scientists involved are keenly aware of that fact, and it affects how conclusions are reached and presented.

Yet there was no sense at Altenberg of a desire to attack evolutionary theory from the left. Quite the reverse ó the dominant political concern was a fear of attack from fundamentalists. As Gould discovered, creationists seize on any hint of splits in evolutionary theory or dissatisfaction with Darwinism. In the past couple of decades, everyone has become keenly aware of this, regardless of their satisfaction or otherwise with the modern synthesis. "You always feel like you're trying to cover your rear," says Love. "If you criticize, it's like handing ammunition to these folks." So don't criticize in a grandstanding way, says Coyne: "People shouldn't suppress their differences to placate creationists, but to suggest that neo-Darwinism has reached some kind of crisis point plays into creationists' hands," he says. 4

Scientists are afraid to tell the truth because creationists will publish it. Thatís why the reports in the popular science tabloids (Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, New Scientist) often differ from what is written in the real science journals (Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) that only professional scientists read. You probably wonít read about post-modern evolution in Scientific American until they can figure out some way to spin it properly.

Changing science from a rich manís hobby into a career choice for the masses is a valuable improvement that comes with a price. Increasing the number of scientists increases the amount of work that can be done. But the work done has to satisfy the goals of the sponsor, or the job ends. Rich men who financed their own work could allow science to lead them anywhere, and publish any truth they discovered. Paid scientists donít always have that luxury.

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1 Disclosure, October 2008, ďPost-modern EvolutionĒ
2 John Whitfield, Nature, 18 September 2008, ďBiological theory: Postmodern evolution?Ē, pp. 281-284, https://www.nature.com/articles/455281a
3 ibid.
4 ibid.