Science and socialism: How science can be used to benefit the majority

In this first of two articles lab technician and Workers Party member in Hamilton Josh Glue discusses the nature of science and the limitations and advantages put upon it by the capitalist system. In next month’s issue of The Spark, a follow-up article will examine the possible advantages for scientific discovery and application in a socialist future.

“Science, generally speaking, costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means prevents him from exploiting it.” So Karl Marx said in Volume 1 of his masterwork Capital. Science is not often cited as a central focus of socialist thought, but the interplay between the advance of scientific thought and application and the continuing operation of the capitalist economic system is an issue of great importance for the future of humanity and another reason for the growing need to replace capitalism with a better economic and social regime. Marx hit the nail on the head. The expense in funding a ground breaking piece of scientific discovery is sometimes massively overshadowed by the profit for private capital gained from the use of the technology that discovery creates. 

Public sector and public-funded science
For example, the most commonly used methods of creating transgenic plant lines were developed by universities with public and private funding (the majority public in the form of buildings, infrastructure, equipment and staff salaries) yet the majority of profits from these ground breaking sciences go to private capitalist conglomerates like Monsanto. Indeed, this is a common archetype of public-funded innovation going to line the pockets of the private sector. Universities are built by workers, funded by workers taxes and filled largely with workers children as students, yet the universities themselves either feel no need to “repay the favour” to society at large, or else are severely restricted in doing so by their desperate need for greater funding and thereby led into the arms of capital to fund further research which is also expropriated.

In other ways scientists are more restricted and their precious funding squandered by the way science has to operate under capitalism. In universities and research institutes alike, funding is typically modest and short term, meaning application is a constant process, so that the most experienced and skilled members of a research team, usually the team leader or supervisor, is more often in the office than in the lab where their passion and talent lies. Administrative costs are also abnormally high in NZ, with a greater percentage of funding wasted on a top-heavy undemocratic model of management and leadership that reduces the ground floor scientist’s ability to get the resources she or he needs promptly and to have a say in the operation of the institutes that their research makes possible.

Science in the private sector
In the private sector as well, structural and systemic problems restrict the ability of scientists to advance human thought and apply scientific discoveries for the benefit of all. The competitive model of capitalism makes for leaner funding models and less bureaucracy in some companies, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing because less bureaucracy can result in less efficiency in other areas. Compared to the public sector, private research and commercial science is also plagued by unnecessary levels of management and an even greater lack of science workers having a say in the running of their labs. Furthermore, the overarching purpose of private science is profit, which means theoretical research in more esoteric branches of science is generally underfunded or ignored, despite the fact it may lead to great advances in the future, help in understanding complex ecosystems, or simply expand mankind’s knowledge of the universe.

In the same way, funding for research and technology that might benefit the great majority of humanity is always minimal. How else can you explain the lack of funding to eradicate the decimating parasitic diseases of Sub-Saharan Africa or money to actually fight global warming properly while millions of dollars goes to creating “terminator seeds” of transgenic high-yield crops, with engineered seed infertility so farmers must buy their seeds anew each year, or engineering high lysine corn to breed fat, high-value pigs instead of creating disease resistant subsistence crops for poor countries?

Against the mistrust of science – for science as a tool of liberation
Much of the present distrust and misunderstanding of science amongst the public is due to a fear of advanced and powerful science like nuclear power and transgenic techniques being in the hands of a class of humanity who constantly seek their own enrichment at the expense and exploitation of their fellow human beings. People understand, often without realising they do, that even technology with massive positive potential is corrupted if used only for private gain. If you press the average opponent to genetic engineering you will find they are actually opposed to the general operation of capitalism and its effect on the technological products of human thought.

The great scientific thinkers of the past and present have spoken highly of the ideals of science, and well they should. The purpose of science, the spirit or heart of the thing, is an issue of debate that is broad and philosophical. But, put simply, for many idealistic scientists the purpose of science is this: The expansion of pure human knowledge of the material universe and the advancement of sustainable human prosperity to eliminate the horrors of wont, disease and suffering for the greatest possible number of people.

In the early 1950s Dr Jonas Salk developed an effective oral vaccine against polio, saving countless lives from disability or death. Rather than patent his incredible discovery for his own enrichment, he gave it free to the world, ensuring it could be distributed to the furthest corners of the globe in the hopes of eradicating the disease altogether. While polio still clings on in some of the poorest parts of the world, the failure to eradicate it worldwide speaks far more to the impracticality and weakness of world bourgeois democracy than to Salk’s excellent vaccine.

Science and technology are the collective product of thousands of years of human thought, work and the mind-boggling capacity of the human spirit. This wealth of knowledge should be the common birth-right of all the people of the world.

If all of scientific thought could be used without greed or restriction against the great horrors of disease and hunger, in a democratic world without class or borders, what wonders would humanity be capable of?

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