• Science and Democracy Invite Each Other to the World Social Forum

  • Von Janine Guespin-Michel | 25 May 09
  • Although it did not all start in 2000 with the council of European ministers in Lisbon, this event shed dramatic light on, and sharply accelerated, the deep changes that have gradually transformed scientific research to make it fit the new functions assigned it by the liberal economy. The goal was to create the knowledge society and economy aimed at making Europe the world’s most competitive economy by 2010. In fact, this goal spelled out what has characterised the evolution of science since the early 1980s. Science has been summoned to serve as the foundation of the liberal economy by fuelling innovation. There was no more any question of letting scientists drive research; science had to become profitable and feed industrial, not to say, financial profits. This meant a profound change in the place that scientific research occupied in the economy of the “30 glorious” post-war years, when the watchword was “science discovers and society uses”. But only a few organisations and some scientists were alarmed by this change. European unification was too far off for some, science too difficult for others. The European Commission thus had a free hand in achieving deep changes in scientific research and goals, and the national governments quickly followed suit – notably the French government, which has just put the finishing touches on measures that will end up bringing the research and university sector to its knees. Eight years after the Council of Lisbon the situation is serious. Not only in Europe but in all developed countries (with the partial exception of USA) we see the same drift toward crack-down: drastic restriction of fundamental research programmes (except for some extremely prestigious programmes), and transformation of science into a technoscience that meets the immediate needs for profit of multinational companies (and I do not speak here of military research which continues in the greatest secrecy and is everywhere an important part of national budgets).

    For science, the damage is profound, even though most scientists only see the tip of the iceberg. The attack is occurring on all fronts: casualisation of young researchers, then of other staff, to make them docile and malleable and let them change their projects according to the whim and needs of the financial and industrial sectors; drastic reduction of public funds such that laboratories are induced to turn to industry-related projects for funding; establishing systems to manage public research according to this logic of innovation. These measures, being taken in every industrialised country, are catching the attention of scientists. But there are other consequences which are more serious in the long term: the disappearance of entire crucial branches of research; the steering of scientific concepts and theories such as to privilege technosciences and devalue more globalalising, contextualized theories and approaches which could endanger the race for innovation. At the same time, research areas important to society – combating “poor people’s” diseases, knowledge needed for better control of a sustainable and farmer’s agriculture, or serious research on renewable energy sources – are neglected or marginalised. Researchers are concerned about the quantitative aspects of these measures, but are usually blind to their causes or their equally harmful qualitative impacts. In France the “Save Research” movement (SLR) has brought together a substantial number of researchers and academics to an Estates General of Research resulting from a petition campaign of unprecedented success. However, despite there being a theme “science and society”, they did not really call for the participation of “civil society”. And then, after a bit of window dressing, the government continued the systematic dismembering of public research. For their part, the social transformation movements showed little concern. The SLR petition got support from the public, but without the public really understanding what it was about, and without the science workers really trying to stir up active solidarity from civil society. Most of them still think that science is a problem that concerns scientists alone.

    Meanwhile, the race for innovation-based profits led to drifts and mishaps due to the desire to move ever faster, without taking time to evaluate the experiments, and without the opportunity to consider possible adverse effects. The cases of HIV-contaminated blood and of Mad Cow Disease alerted the public, and began paradoxically to generate and strengthen an “anti-science” feeling, oblivious of the real issues and responsibilities. And this continues ! We are beginning to discover the dangers of cell phones and microwaves; we suspect, but no serious research has been conducted yet, that nanoparticles could be more dangerous than asbestos; and GMO seeds threaten ecosystems and put the world food supply under the predatory hold of a few multinationals. But, apart from some specialised NGOs, the social movements show little concern, or only when it is too late, when scandals eventually burst into view ... ! As for these specialised NGOs, they are mainly preoccupied with risks, from nuclear to GMOs, and they seldom deal with what is happening at the more fundamental level, with the new roles assigned to research, with the managing of research by and for profit, which cripple the future in the long term. They rarely realise that today’s research policy conditions the nature of tomorrow’s society. The gap between science workers and civil society is growing, mutual distrust is the norm and the social movement as a whole is uninterested in the issue.

    Admittedly, particularly since the Lisbon summit, several organisations (including Espaces Marx in France, see publications below, 2006), began, for instance during the European Social Forums, to try and attract the attention of social and political movements and to promote dialogue between science workers and civil society.. But their action has remained marginal, and the gap has continued to be significant between the unions of concerned science workers (such as WFSW or INES) and NGOs such as the Citizens Science Foundation (“Fondation Science Citoyenne”) or Greenpeace.

    This year the situation may change and the level of consciousness may improve. Indeed, the issue is moving into the World Social Forum where a day and a half, before the main forum, will be devoted to the topic of “science and democracy” (January 26 and 27, 2009 fsm-sciences.org. The idea is to draw the attention of social movements to the fact that science’s problems concern all of society, and to draw the attention of science workers to the need to join social movements and to promote and enhance the dialogue between researchers and citizens. This day was prepared in various international settings, for instance in two seminars at the Malmö ESF. The new situation changed the atmosphere of these seminars, which recorded a significantly higher attendance than at the previous Social Forum in Athens. Although each type of organisation has maintained its point of view, the realisation of the need for dialogue and mutual understanding has increased. Scientists were better able to make their views heard and to explain why they feel that the struggle against the commodification of research can neither be waged without citizens nor without scientists. And they became aware that sustainable development is incompatible with current research policies. The NGOs made a greater effort in showing how democracy and citizenship is useful to the development of science; Patrick Mulvany for instance used an official report (IAASTD) that demonstrates how hunger in the world cannot be eradicated by the current policy, but requires a development of the local peasantry (agroecology), which in turn requires a profound change in research priorities, as defined today under pressure from Monsanto and others.

    Not less research, but more research and another kind of research! The defence of research as a public service, which can guarantee the independence of researchers in the face of market pressures, was also pointed up, as well as the close links between teaching and research.

    Finally the discussion began to address the problem of the form that citizen intervention could take, linking science and democracy. This dialogue is important and difficult, but will not suffice if it does not reach the decision-making level. This is the problem of participatory democracy, and of the relationship between participation and institutions (see publication EM 2008).


    Publications of Espaces Marx dedicated to this topic (collection Syllepse / Espaces Marx):

    Le vivant entre sciences et marchés : une démocratie à inventer, collection edited by J. Guespin-Michel et A. Jacq, 2006. (The methods and consequences of the commodification of public research in biology were examined by a multidisciplinary researchers collective.)

    “Science et démocratie participative,” by J. Guespin-Michel et A. Jacq, chapter in Démocratie participative et transformation sociale. P.Coulon ed. 2008