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Recognise the politics of science

1.Challenge, don't worship, the chiefs and high priestesses of science
2.When scholars sell out, the consequences are grave

1.Challenge, don't worship, the chiefs and high priestesses of science
Alice Bell
The Guardian, May 17 2013

*If we don't recognise the politics of science, we will just get played by those who do

[Picture caption: The Royal Society motto, "Nullius in verba", which roughly translates as "Take nobody's word for it".]

At the BSA Science Communication conference this week, I was invited to speak about science policy, under the title "All hail to the chief". Except, I think science involves way too much hailing already. I'm not about to start bowing to Sir Mark Walport, just because he's the government chief scientific adviser. Neither do I think we should be worshiping Science Media Centre CEO, Fiona Fox as a "high priestess" ([Science journalist] Roger Highfield's rather telling nickname for her).

Science today, and the way we share it with the rest of the world, is based on layers upon layers of deference. We spend our lives crawling up to senior scientists, and those who pay them, sitting and waiting to be told what to think. We shouldn't be so complacent.

The Government Office of Science and Technology, the Science Media Centre, journalists, museums, school curricula and a host of other systems for sharing science act as filters for scientific information, choosing which is the most important and useful. This is what makes them so useful, but such choices are always going to involve more than simply science and we need to recognise this.

We've been here before. It's the critique of the so-called "deficit model" many of us have been dancing to for decades. The deficit model, if you're lucky enough not to have come across the term, assumes science has the knowledge the public are deficient in, and that many of our social ills will be solved if we all listened to the experts. It'd be a nice idea maybe if science, the media, policy or people were that simple, but they're not (I talked about similar issues in my Radio Four piece on scientific literacy last year).

The deficit model sticks around partly because it feeds scientists' social status, implicitly underlining their powerful position as people who get to define what counts as important, true, reliable knowledge. Stephen Hilgartner put it well back in 1990, saying such top down approaches implicitly provide the scientific establishment with the epistemological right to print money.

Something we don't appreciate enough though is that also serves the handmaidens of the deficit model – science communication professionals, less powerful scientists, many science "fans" – offering them some social status by association. Play into a game of hierarchies, and even if you don't get to the top, you get to climb a bit. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic sociology of the university campus, Homo Academicus, talks about the way students are happy to submit to the idea that they are inferior to senior academics because doing so earns them subsequent admittance to a distinguished club of graduates. I think we can see similar patterns at work in terms of the way academic ideas are shared outside of universities too.

Less cynically, top down models also stick around because scientists do, genuinely, have special ideas and information to share. We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world. We should listen to them.

As David Dickson wrote in 2005, factual reporting of science can be socially empowering for audiences. It's worth remembering this. Political systems of scientific advice in government are built partly for this reason too, to make best use of scientific expertise. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and lazy critique of science is not just silly, it can be dangerous (if you've never read "Merchants of Doubt", do).

But valuing expertise in society doesn't mean you have to unquestionably listen to those labelled as expert.

Earlier this week, George Monbiot neatly pulled out Mark Walport's suggestion that a prime function of his role in government was to ensure science translates to economic growth. Firstly, is that really Walport's job? Really? Secondly, even if it is, what kind of growth are we talking about? To serve which parts of society? To go in what directions? Drawing on what resources? These are very serious questions with multiple possible answers, many of which science will be a necessary, but insufficient part of. We should be invited to access, or at least view, these less than simply scientific decision-making process.

When I was looking into the Big Bang Fair last term, I learned that volunteers were briefed not to get pulled into debating "politics" of arms dealing or the fossil fuel industry, lest it distracted from the science. I've since heard similar briefings have been issued for science events running over the summer. It's also a line I heard all too often when I worked at Imperial College.

It's bullshit. Simple bullshit. Politics doesn't distract from the science. An over-emphasis on de-contextualised science is used to distract from the politics.

It is often assumed science is somehow above political issues, but just because disinterestedness is an aspiration doesn't mean it's true in practice. It can be hard to spot ideologies you're part of, so decent public engagement – which is honest about the uncertainties and arguments in science and actively invites questioning – can help science uncover itself more clearly. This is vitally important, because if you don't recognise how routinely political science is, you just get played by those who do.
2.La Nouvelle Trahison des Clercs
George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th May 2013

*When scholars sell out, the consequences are grave.

In 1927 the French philosopher Julien Benda published a piercing attack on the intellectuals of his day. They should, he argued in La Trahison des Clercs (the treason of the scholars) act as a check on popular passions[1]. Civilisation, he claimed, is possible only if intellectuals stand in opposition to the demands of political “realism” by upholding universal principles. “Thanks to the scholars,” Benda maintained, “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honoured good.” Europe might have been lying in the gutter, but it was looking at the stars.

But those ideals, he argued, had been lost. Europe was now lying in the gutter, looking in the gutter. The “immense majority” of intellectuals, artists and clergy had joined “the chorus of hatreds”: nationalism, racism, the worship of power and war. In doing so, they justified and magnified political passions. Across Europe, scholars on both the left and the right had become “ready to support in their own countries the most flagrant injustices”, to abandon universal principles in favour of national exceptionalism and to proclaim “the supreme morality of violence”. He quoted the French anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel, who eulogised “the superb blond beast wandering in search of prey and carnage”.

The result of this intellectual support for domination, Benda argued, was that there was now no moral check on the pursuit of self-interest. Rather than forming a bulwark against popular delusions, Europe’s thinkers turned them into doctrines. With remarkable foresight, he predicted that this would lead inexorably to “the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world”. This war would be genocidal in intent[2], and would not be stopped by any treaties or institutions. In 1927 these were bold claims.

I’m not suggesting an equivalence between those times and these. I’m summarising Benda to highlight a general principle: the need for a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counterweight to prevailing mores. Racism, nationalism and war are only three of the many hazards to which society is exposed if that challenge should fail: if, that is, most scholars side with the soldiers or the sellers.

Today the dominant forces have changed. Now the weak state, not the strong state, is fetishised by those in power, who insist that its functions be devolved to “the market”, meaning corporations and the very rich. Economic growth and the forces that drive it, whether they enhance or harm people’s lives, are venerated. And too many scholars seem prepared to support the new dispensation.

Two weeks ago I castigated the new chief scientist, Sir Mark Walport, for misinforming the public about risk, making unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims and indulging in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in defence of the government’s position[3]. Since then I have seen his first speech in his new role, and realised that the problem runs deeper than I thought.

Speaking at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, Walport maintained that scientific advisors had five main functions, and the first of these was “ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth”(4). No statement could more clearly reveal what Benda called the “assimilation” of the intellectual. As if to drive the point home, the press release summarising his speech revealed that the centre is sponsored, among others, by BAE Systems, BP, and Lloyd’s[5].

Last week, two days before CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, Oxford University opened a new geoscience laboratory, named after its sponsor, Shell. Among its roles is helping to find and develop new sources of fossil fuel[6].

This is one of many such collaborations. Last year, for example, BP announced that it will spend £60m on research at Manchester University, partly to help it drill deeper for oil[7]. In the US and Canada universities go further: David Lynch, dean of engineering at the University of Alberta, appears in advertisements by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, whose purpose is to justify and normalise tar sands extraction[8].

As the campaign group People and Planet points out, universities help provide fossil fuel corporations not only with expertise but also with a “social licence to operate”[9]. Climate change is one of the great moral issues of our age, but the scholars in the strongest position to challenge the industry responsible are, instead, lending it what Benda calls their “moral prestige”. Neoliberal economists, imperialist historians, warmongering philosophers, pliable chief scientists, compromised energy researchers: all are propelling us into the arms of power.

In 1998, the vice-chancellors of the UK’s universities decided that they would no longer take money for cancer research from tobacco firms[10]. Over the past few days, I have asked the Shell Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford, the university itself and the umbrella body Universities UK to explain the ethical difference between taking tobacco money for cancer research and taking fossil fuel money for energy research. None of these great heads, despite my repeated attempts to engage them, were prepared even to attempt an answer.

So perhaps this is where hope lies: unlike Benda’s scholars, these people have not yet developed a justifying ideology, which permits them to excuse or glorify the compromises they have made with power. Perhaps we have not yet abandoned the redeeming hypocrisy of what Benda called “honouring good”.


1. Julien Benda, 1927. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Translated by Richard Aldington, 2007. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.

2. The term he used for genocidal war, following Renan, was “zoological”.







9. People and Planet, pers comm.

10. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the UK, quoted in The Times, 15th December 1998.