Science and business are more entangled than ever before. This is good for economic growth, but can be bad for scientific authorityby Thomas Barlow / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
It has become a commonplace of our age that debate about science and technology is elbowing out the old themes of high politics. Godfrey Hodgson, elsewhere in this issue of Prospect, attributes this to the end of a “grand narrative” of two world wars and a cold war in which everyone’s future, at least in Europe, was directly bound up with events on the international political stage. Elemental anxieties about survival have not, however, disappeared. Rather, they have shifted ground from armed conflict to the big scientific controversies about modern life. Is over-population about to cause a cataclysm of disease and famine? Are pesticides going to give us all cancer? What caused the hole in the ozone layer? Is there a cure for HIV? Does biodiversity matter? Is Britain about to suffer an epidemic of CJD? Is the greenhouse effect real or not? Dare we eat genetically modified foods?
The rise and rise of scientific controversy is not just a media phenomenon. Nearly half of the bills now put before the US Congress have a substantial scientific component, which is not matched by the level of scientific literacy among congressmen. This is increasingly true of other democracies, too. The issues are usually too complex for politicians and public to do anything but defer to the scientific consensus (if one ever emerges). We are increasingly dependent upon scientists for their advice-and anxious about whether we can, in fact, trust them.
The problem of trust is compounded by a change in the nature of modern science. Over the past 20 years, science and business have become much more closely entangled. Of course science has always served business. The white-coated scientists conjured up in Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the scientific revolution” in the 1960s were just as likely to work for the private sector as the public sector. Indeed, in Britain since 1995 the private sector has actually employed more scientists than the public sector. But, until recently, the dominant ethos of science remained a public sector one-it was something done by disinterested boffins for the public good.
This public sector ethos also reflected the public funding of science. Impressed by the success of science in the second world war (which gave us penicillin, radar and the atom bomb), governments invested heavily in science up until the 1970s. But thereafter public funding has been in decline and much of the financial…