[p2p-research] Stop selling out science to commerce - opinion - 09 November 2009 - New Scientist

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Nov 12 05:22:35 CET 2009

DO COMMERCIAL pressures have a negative impact on science? This debate has 
been raging for so long that it usually raises little more than a shrug of 
   That is no longer a defensible response. A new report from our 
organisation, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), exposes problems 
so serious that we can no longer afford to be indifferent to them.
   The report looks at the impact of five commercial sectors on science and 
technology over the past 20 years. The damaging influence of two of these, 
pharmaceuticals and tobacco, has been noted before. But we also looked at 
the oil and gas, defence and biotech sectors, which have been subjected to 
less scrutiny.
   We found a wide range of disturbing commercial influences on science, and 
evidence that similar problems are occurring across academic disciplines.
   Over the past two decades, government policy in the US, UK and elsewhere 
has fundamentally altered the academic landscape in a drive for profit. 
Universities have been pushed to adopt a much more commercial mindset, from 
taking out patents to prioritising research that promises short-term 
economic gains. The rapid spread of partnerships between businesses and 
universities has led to some disciplines becoming so intertwined with 
industry that few academics are able to retain their independence. ...
   Another cornerstone of science that is being eroded is the freedom to set 
the public research agenda so that it serves the public interest. 
Governments are increasingly focused on delivering competitiveness, and 
business interests are able to exert pressure on funding bodies through 
representatives on their boards. As a result, environmental and social 
problems and "blue-sky" research commonly lose out to short-term commercial 
gain. ...
   Another example is research on security issues, which is overwhelmingly 
focused on new military technology. Research into understanding the roots of 
conflict, or to support negotiation and reconciliation programmes, receives 
a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of dollars spent globally on 
developing military hardware. And most of that is public money.
   Put bluntly, much publicly funded science is no longer being done in the 
public interest. Despite this, policy-makers are complacent and argue that 
any damaging effects of commercial influence are minor.
   In contrast, many scientists are noticing the effects and becoming 
discomfited by them. Some are starting to speak out. For example, staff at 
the Open University in the UK are pushing for new ethical standards for 
business partnerships following the university's involvement in a major 
military contract.
   However, these campaigns are few and far between. There is a strong 
incentive for scientists not to make a fuss if their department receives 
industry funds. This is strengthened by contractual requirements for secrecy 
that often come with industry partnerships.
   To defend independent science, reform is needed, from the level of 
government policy down to that of the research study. To this end, SGR is 
making recommendations. These include: the open publication of all funding 
arrangements between academia and business; ethical standards for 
business-university partnerships; proper handling of conflicts of interests 
by journals; more involvement of the public in setting research priorities; 
and a change in government policies which prioritise research with 
short-term commercial priorities above all else. ...

Link to the report:
   "Corporate Influence on Science and Technology"

Those reform parts, except the last, seem unlikely to do much in practice. 
We need a more systemic reform, like a basic income, or a gift economy, or 
more local subsistence, to make a lasting difference. But the last point on 
changing government priorities might help, except they are the current way 
due to lots of lobbying by industry, so will it really change?

So, is this all an area where P2P and "professional amateurs" take up the 
slack these days?

For example, I write about global intrinsic security and mutual security and 
even a security of balance, citing the works of others like Morton Deutsch 
and Amory Lovins and Manuel de Landa, with my own post-scarcity twist. :-) 
Not very much in the context of a trillion dollars spent each year by the US 
on "defense" though. Let's hope these tiny sparks are enough to transcend 
the current global security conflicts much of that "security" money has 
helped create, given it has been spent based on scarcity ideology and 
promoting unilateral extrinsic unbalanced security through the creation of 
ironic weapons (like using nuclear power to fight over a perceived scarcity 
of oil instead of produce power, or using robots to fight over material 
goods instead of make more goods).

Still, sometimes people move beyond the irony:
"MOSCOW — What’s powering your home appliances?
   For about 10 percent of electricity in the United States, it’s fuel from 
dismantled nuclear bombs, including Russian ones.
   “It’s a great, easy source” of fuel, said Marina V. Alekseyenkova, an 
analyst at Renaissance Capital and an expert in the Russian nuclear industry 
that has profited from the arrangement since the end of the cold war. But if 
more diluted weapons-grade uranium isn’t secured soon, the pipeline could 
run dry, with ramifications for consumers, as well as some American 
utilities and their Russian suppliers.
   Already nervous about a supply gap, utilities operating America’s 104 
nuclear reactors are paying as much attention to President Obama’s efforts 
to conclude a new arms treaty as the Nobel Peace Prize committee did.
   In the last two decades, nuclear disarmament has become an integral part 
of the electricity industry, little known to most Americans.
   Salvaged bomb material now generates about 10 percent of electricity in 
the United States — by comparison, hydropower generates about 6 percent and 
solar, biomass, wind and geothermal together account for 3 percent.
   Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for 
fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been 
aimed at your home may now be lighting it.
   But at times, recycled Soviet bomb cores have made up the majority of the 
American market for low-enriched uranium fuel. Today, former bomb material 
from Russia accounts for 45 percent of the fuel in American nuclear 
reactors, while another 5 percent comes from American bombs, according to 
the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association in Washington. ...

Now, that's a beautiful post-scarcity thing. And, ironically, no one wants 
to talk about it, "for fear of spooking consumers". What a messed up world. 
Something really good happens, and it's kept a secret.

But, we can thank many people in and out of academia, including at Princeton 
University like Frank von Hippel, for negotiating these treaties back around 
the 1980s.

--Paul Fernhout

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