Out of the laboratory

Emma Hughes hosts a Red Pepper roundtable on science

August 13, 2011 · 14 min read

‘Actually I don’t think there’s any such thing as science,’ states neuroscientist Professor Steven Rose at the start of Red Pepper’s roundtable on the subject. He pauses while we contemplate his opening remark. ‘There are only “sciences” – different ways of approaching and trying to understand and make sense of the world.’

Science is still popularly viewed as a uniform realm of objectivity: an organised way of knowing the world in the form of testable explanations and predictions. Rose offers a different definition: ‘Scientific questions don’t exist outside of the social framework in which those questions are phrased, so the sorts of science that are done in one culture, one social context, one historical epoch, are very different. There’s no science outside the society in which it is embedded.’

Rose began his science career in the early 1960s and by 1969 had already been appointed a professor of biology at the newly formed Open University. He has worked there ever since and still resides as a retired emeritus professor. His research focuses on the neurobiology of learning and memory.

In the 1960s, with other colleagues, he founded the Brain Research Association, now the British Neuroscience Association, which helped shape the emerging field of neuroscience. Yet Rose’s interest in science has always been wider than just the technical advances. In 1969 he helped set up the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science and with sociologist Hilary Rose has written a number of books exploring the ethical, legal and social implications of scientific developments.

Rose is a committed political activist, an interest that dates back to some of his earliest memories of standing behind a street corner platform in Ridley Road, east London, hearing his Jewish father speak against Mosley’s fascists. During the 1960s he campaigned against the Vietnam war and edited a book on the heinous effects of chemical and biological warfare. In 2002 Steven and Hilary Rose jointly initiated a call for a moratorium on European research collaboration with Israel. This led to the creation of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine.

It is clear that Rose’s sense of himself as a radical has led him to question the taken-for-granted in science, in particular the relationship between science and society. In 1969, Steven and Hilary Rose collaborated to set out their thoughts on ‘science and society’ in their book of the same name, a title he would now change. ‘It’s science in society and society in science that we need to understand,’ he says. It’s a relationship that Rose is still keen to unpick.

Society in science

It is the ‘society in science’ that also concerns investigative journalist Andy Rowell, who spends his time exposing what multinationals hope to keep hidden – their use and abuse of scientific concepts to increase their profit margins. ‘I spend a lot of time looking at how companies corrupt science or use science in the corporate interest rather than the public interest, so I have quite a distorted view of what science means,’ he says.

In a world of corporate-spun science, Rowell is unsure how the expertise offered by science can best contribute to policy-making. ‘Science should be the bedrock on which we’re making decisions but quite often it’s getting skewed along the way,’ he says. ‘There was a trustee from the body that was set up to oversee the Exxon Valdez oil spill and he said “what good is science if the answer depends where you get your money?” ’

Science holds a particular lure for the PR industry, which has learnt that messages that provoke scepticism when given by corporations or politicians are accepted when couched in the language of science. The perception of science as disinterested or above the mundane concerns of power and money makes scientists the perfect people to disseminate corporate spin.

When Monsanto discovered that no one believed their claim that GM foods were safe to eat, it and other biotechnology companies set up cropGEN: a group of ‘independent’ scientists who were paid to give the same message.

One organisation that attempts to track the funding behind the myriad of third party front groups is Spinwatch. Its website reveals example after example of scientific-sounding bodies that are actually industry lobby groups. The International Life Science Institute (ILSI), for example, is funded by hundreds of big food, pharma and chemical companies. It was able to infiltrate the World Health Organisation process examining dietary sugars by covertly funding some of the scientists involved.

The Portman Group states that its aim is to promote social responsibility in the alcohol industry, but in actuality it emphasises individual responsibility, blaming a minority of heavy drinkers for alcohol-related problems. It is directly funded by alcohol companies, including Bacardi, Carlsberg and Coors.

The British Nutrition Foundation says it ‘promotes the wellbeing of society through the impartial interpretation and effective dissemination of scientifically based knowledge’. This perception of scientific rigour allows the foundation to present itself as a disinterested commentator to the media and government. Its membership tells a different story, though: it is made up of 38 food industry companies, including Cadbury, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.

The list could go on and on.

Corporate messages are continually placed in the mouths of supposedly disinterested scientists; belief in science’s objectivity lends credibility to the claims of even the most tarnished of companies. Rose’s questioning of science’s capacity ever to be ‘disinterested’ not only offers a more realistic concept of science but is also useful in exposing the interests behind all scientific ventures, not just corporate ones.

Scientific spin

As Rose states, ‘There is no such thing as science outside the society in which it is done. So it’s not a question of corrupt science versus pure science. There is science done in the interest of the oil industry and there is science done in the name of other interests.’

The key, then, Rose argues, is to understand the interests shaping science, not to try to distinguish between ‘manipulated’ and ‘pure’ science. The forces that mould our sciences are likely to be many and potentially contradictory: the desire to solve a societal problem, social norms, the expectations of funders and so on. Once we accept that science is not a disinterested discipline, not all of these interests are necessarily problematic; they do, however, all shape scientific advances.

Connie St Louis, a senior lecturer at City University, London, trains would-be science journalists. She points out that it is not just corporates that have an economic interest in the ways science is used: ‘It’s the idea of who’s invested in science that we need to try to understand, and often we think about corporates but I also think scientists are very invested in science. As a scientist your career depends on publication; it depends on getting funding, getting grants.’

Over the past 20 years almost every scientific discipline has become vastly more competitive. Thatcher’s cuts to science budgets in the 1980s marked the start of a shift that saw researchers forced to compete with colleagues for private funding. The need to attract financial investment meant scientists had to become their own PR gurus. ‘The conveyor belt is started in the laboratories themselves,’ says Rose. ‘If you look at the press releases that are put out, there’s a sort of megaphone science. So it starts off with scientists and their press officers, the universities or the press officers in the journals all putting out competitive press releases.’

The debate surrounding embryo stem cell science vividly illustrates that scientists have become adept at selling their work. Since 2000, when the Donaldson report first recommended expanding the ways in which embryos could be used to allow for stem cell research, it has been crucial for scientists to attain both financial investment and a favourable regulatory environment for this new technology. Stem cell scientists have sought to highlight the multiple benefits that might spring from their research and potential cures have been promoted as medical certainties rather than desired outcomes.

Professor Jenny Kitzinger has tracked the stem cell debate. She explains how ‘a fierce PR battle got underway in 2000. This included coordinated press releases from leading science bodies like the Medical Research Council and patients’ groups such as the Parkinson’s Society. Support was provided by celebrities, in particular Superman actor Christopher Reeves, and there was an explicit attempt to get science correspondents on side.’

In 2005, Korean scientist Professor Hwang Woo-suk claimed he had established stem cell lines from cloned human embryos. This provided the stem cell community with the breakthrough they needed to show that stem cell research would deliver on its promise to provide cures. Hwang’s work was held up by scientists and journalists as proof of the field’s potential. It later transpired that his breakthroughs were fraudulent and the eagerness of the stem cell community to present potential as certainty resulted in the promotion of false data.

Pressing science

For Connie St Louis, the responsibility also lies with the media. She argues that too many science journalists are concerned with telling the story of science rather than investigating it. Instead of investigators and reporters they become more akin to PR spokepeople: ‘We don’t have science journalists that are interrogating science. I think we should have a much more proactive science journalism, investigating conflicts of interest, peer review, who’s retracting what and when. I don’t think people understand how much money is paid by oil companies to feed, for example, climate sceptics. I don’t think people understand how governments make decisions and I think without those bits of information it’s difficult for people to understand.’

St Louis is particularly critical of the way newspapers covered ‘Climate-gate’, the scandal that erupted when climatologists at the University of East Anglia had their emails hacked. The emails were said to contain evidence that scientists were manipulating data to support the view that man-made climate change is real. St Louis argues that editors removed science correspondents from this story because their role was seen as science promotion rather than interrogation. This meant the coverage was handed over to political and news journalists. These correspondents concentrated on the controversy and news space was filled with climate sceptic opinion.

Science journalists had the expertise to dispute the claims of climate sceptics, and that they were not given an investigative role allowed climate change deniers to gain far greater attention than they might have otherwise. A MORI poll revealed that during the year of the scandal the proportion of adults who would say ‘climate change is definitely a reality’ dropped by 13 per cent. As St Louis argues, this is a dangerous time for science journalism to be confused about its purpose.

Science in society

As well as understanding how society impacts upon science, Steven Rose believes it is equally important to pay attention to how science influences society. ‘The questions we ask about the world are shaped by the technologies available. The fact that we’ve got the hubble telescope, that we have satellites circling the earth, that there are infra-red rays – these all shape the type of questions that one can ask.’

Rose, a staunch critique of evolutionary psychology, is particularly concerned with genetically deterministic ways of understanding ourselves. ‘Count the number of times that a politician, a journalist, a sportsperson talks about something being in my DNA and you see the ways in which this particular metaphor about the way we understand ourselves has now very much shaped our thinking.’ That people should understand themselves as products only of their genes has worrying implications and, despite specialising in biology, Rose still argues that social factors are just as important in human lives as biological ones.

Given this perspective, Rose is particularly critical of the pharmaceutical industry’s impact upon understandings of disease. ‘In my terrain one of the biggest influences is big pharma, who not merely fund the science but also invent the diseases that the science is supposed to be treating,’ he says. Rose maintains that the model for treating conditions such as depression is wrong, with treatments focusing on profitable medical interventions rather than potentially more effective social ones.

‘The diseases are tailored around the needs of those drug companies. The whole structure of thinking about health in advanced industrial countries like Britain is shaped towards the development of molecular and genetic solutions rather than looking at public health solutions or even clinical care solutions to health problems,’ he argues. The corporate domination of medical sciences is influencing society’s understanding of illness.

Citizen science

If science reflects the interests of the society it emerges from, then it is set to continue serving corporate rather than public interests. Attempts at opening up science to citizen involvement have been limited. Rose describes the public decision-making exercises he’s been involved with and explains how participants are often provided with information that ensures they simply reflect experts’ opinions back to them. ‘I’d go along as an expert and say these are the priorities we need to be dealing with and lo and behold my group came up with my suggestions, so I was delighted!’ he recalls with a chuckle.

Connie St Louis is particularly critical of science minister David Willetts’ plans to include members of ‘the public’ on his grant funding bodies. She argues that as token individuals who do not have a wider knowledge of the funding process it will be almost impossible for participants to meaningfully engage in the decisions they are being asked to take, and they will end up rubber-stamping expert opinions.

Such limited attempts at the democratisation of science seem bound to fail; as long as our society is fundamentally undemocratic, so our science will be. As David Miller from Spinwatch states, ‘What is needed is direct democratic control of society. Democracy has been insulated from popular control by neoliberalism and the same forces affect science in practice. Both democracy and science need to be liberated from neoliberalism.’

To achieve a model of science better suited to achieving social justice, the funding has to change. Independent, democratically controlled, public funding bodies are needed to loosen the ties between corporate money and scientific advances. In the age of austerity, though, that seems unlikely to materialise, and Andy Rowell is clear that the first battle in reclaiming science lies in defending the status quo: ‘Where will the privatisation of universities end? Will biotechnology companies offer degrees in food science? Or oil companies in climate science? If people want to mobilise they can get involved with protecting our universities.’

Steven Rose argues that radicals should be providing a critique of technocracy and reinforcing the links between the scientific and the social worlds. Sometimes that means recognising the limits of science, especially in delivering public health gains not just for the rich, but for everyone. ‘What’s needed is a profound reorientation of biomedical research and the directions in which it is going,’ Rose argues. ‘When more money goes on looking at the genetics of cancer than cancer care we’re in a bad situation.’ Science cannot provide a techno-fix for all of society’s ills; injustice must still be recognised, inequality fought against. It is the lack of appetite for this battle that hinders medical advances rather than a deficiency in technical knowledge.

‘There are things that we can do something about,’ Connie St Louis concludes. ‘Give people reasonable housing, give people reasonable outcomes in life and their health will improve. But there’s not the political will to change these things.’

Science is a product of the society

that creates it; the clearest way to free science of the influence of multinationals is to free society. The struggles for better kinds of science can’t just take place in laboratories. n

This article is based on a roundtable discussion with Professor Steven Rose, Andy Rowell and Connie St Louis. Thanks also to Professor David Miller and Professor Jenny Kitzinger, who were interviewed separately for the article

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