• What Science for What Democracy?

  • By Janine Guespin-Michel | 02 May 12 | Posted under: Democracy
  • The expression “science and democracy” has been spreading. Its meaning, consequently, is becoming polysemous. Is there, on the one hand, an eternal “science” (more or less fantasised) and, on the other, a “democracy” that has to be “administered” to that science with a view to “improving” it? Or, more fundamentally, should we not be thinking in terms of co-evolution between science and society?

    Thus, undoubtedly, the present situation of science cannot be understood outside this ultraliberal, globalised and financialised stage of capitalist society, in which it is developing. Inversely, must not any project for democratisation of society involve in return – and be preceded by – a change in science, about which it seems necessary to think already now and even to begin giving it substance?

    By using the term “economy and society of knowledge”, neoliberal capitalism aims at recruiting science behind its banner and making it the pillar of economic war and competitiveness. In so doing, it had to transform Western science into a key instrument for profit, consumerism … and the crisis. What is at stake are the scientific policies that assign research the role of being a source of profit through what is called – without defining it – innovation.2These policies are established both by the financing of research and by its “management”, on the model of a firm (which introduces a high degree of job insecurity for scientific workers). Thus research workers are asked, as a condition of receiving credits needed for pursuing their activity, how many patents they have filed, and what the innovations are that they envisage resulting from the research project for which they are seeking subsidies. All this is beginning to be very well understood and analysed at length.3

    It is, however, important to realise that all this profoundly modifies the very nature of research, the significance of science and the nature of scientific activity. The research being carried out today in public laboratories is not the same as that which was carried out around the middle of the 20th century. A fortiori, the research that contributes to capitalist competitiveness is not the same as that which will contribute to “the conceptualisation and democratic realisation of another form of globalisation”.4


    Knowledge economy

    This means that there is no “essence of science”, not even in Western science. Research is a social activity that obeys society’s imperatives through constraints that can be described as epistemological (method, material and conceptual tools, theories, dominant paradigm … and the existence of a real object for knowledge research) and political (the research policy of the public and private institutions). Thus the modifications imposed under the term knowledge economy have seen the transformation of research from an activity experienced as autonomous (which was in part illusory) to one primarily driven by profit. Two terms summarise the way science has had to evolve to meet these imperatives: techno-science and innovation. I will here use “techno-science” to describe these transformations, while being aware of the misinterpretations to which this may lead. In no way am I proposing a return to the oil lamp or denying the importance and impact of technologies in certain disciplines and for a great deal of research, and I have the greatest respect for the technologies that have been able (and may yet be more able if better used) profoundly to improve human life and even human nature.

    Science in the second half of the 20th century was relatively ripe for these transformations as it was an essentially reductionist science, giving priority to the analysis of increasingly small and dissociated parts thanks to increasingly sophisticated technologies, and thus often neglecting the study processes at all levels, in both their globality and their dynamic movement. This has resulted in an extreme division of scientific disciplines into compartmentalised sub-disciplines, increasingly focused on techniques, which it was not too hard to recruit under the banner of techno-science with some financial pressure. Add to this a career managed (in the name of excellence) by more rather than by good and a suffocating timetable driven by the necessity for always doing more while seeking financial means oneself, and we very quickly end up by making shut-away research workers, no longer in their “ivory towers” but in their laboratory and no longer with the time or the receptiveness to become citizens.

    Everything is then ripe setting up structures to guide and manage research that slips completely out of the control of the scientists. The latter put up with this for the sake of the survival of research, even if this research hardly resembles the activity with which they, at least the older scientists, were used to associating the term.

    As for the younger scientists, they have not known anything else! Thus science (even if there are still exceptions to the rule) has no other mission than to contribute to innovation, competitiveness, economic war and also financial profits (in the form of an “economy of promise”5), that is, to carry out the kind of activity that inexorably plunges today’s world into crisis.


    European Research Area

    From this point of view should we distinguish between the natural sciences and the human sciences? No, because the latter are also threatened with extinction in all areas that do not directly fit into the knowledge economy. And all this has come true in the entire world in just a decade’s time, in all the developed countries, even though its rates and the methods used may have differed from one country to another. In Europe, the European Commission has established a European Research Area (ERA) to ensure the evolution of the convergent scientific policies of all member countries. However, Japanese and Australian researchers tell the same story of the same transformations and the same suffering as well.

    Clearly, this has not occurred without generating conflict and resistance – the many trade-union struggles fought out in France, for example, illustrate this well. These struggles, however, are more over the methods of managing research and its financing than over the nature of scientific activity or its meaning. However, what would be dangerous is if these resistances only aimed at going back to the science of, say, the 1960s – the science that had been so easily transformed to techno-science. Another mistake, perhaps, would be to think that for reversing the situation it would suffice to add a pinch or a scoopful of democracy to the science that we have now.

    My argument is that a science is needed that is other than our present techno-science – but a science that is also different from that of the last century, in order to help shape an alternative society, also contributing, starting now, to the struggle against the crisis. This, indeed, would initiate a virtuous circle! Ideas and experiments already exist, and I want here to stress the possibility and, indeed, necessity of articulating the defensive struggles against the subservience of research to profit with creative struggles to invent another kind of research, and of beginning, as far as it is possible, to putting it in place now.

    Modern Western science developed around the idea of mastering nature. Other forms of knowledge, of those called “native peoples” for example, are based on another view of the world that includes humanity in nature. Does the idea of mastering nature necessarily lead to the science we know? Or even to a single way of doing science, a single paradigm that I have summarised here as techno-science?6 The idea advanced here is that science coincides with society not only in its methods of management but even in its structure, its character – put another way: in the questions its raises, in those that it considers scientific or non-scientific, pertinent or not pertinent, important or trivial, in what Kuhn called the dominant paradigms.7

    This in no way means that I deny the possibility of objective knowledge, or that I consider that everything in science as it is today should be cast aside. Does this mean retuning to a sort of latent Lysenkoism, a “proletarian (or democratic) science” as opposed to a “bourgeois science”? It’s a question that should not be dodged. In my opinion the philosopher Hugh Lacey gives the best tools for dealing with this problem in making a distinction between impartiality and neutrality in science.8 What he calls impartiality covers the cognitive values that the scientific community recognises as being true (provisionally) such as theories or models or interpretation of facts. These values are independent of values in the moral sense. Radioactivity or genes are true however they are used and quantum theory does not need the consent of public opinion or the banks to be proved correct.9

    On the other hand, Lacey observes that this does not mean that science and scientists should be indifferent to the implications of their impartial work of enquiry, or that researchers should work without being responsible to society for their activities. Research workers must be impartial but not neutral. Being involved does not simply mean putting into practice. This also covers the framework in which the objectives of a research project are defined.

    Lacey contrasts two major strategies.10Uncontextualised strategies are those in which the issues and type of pertinent data are defined by solely focusing on those that, in the phenomenon, are related to structures, processes and underlying laws, thus enabling it to be analysed and mastered. They are “uncontextualised” since they explicitly disregard all the context of actions, values, description and experiences in which the phenomenon studied are situated. Reductionist approaches are, by definition uncontextualised. As against this, contextualised strategies embody, in the very construction of the research project, factors tied to the manner in which the phenomenon being studied is structured around practices, is part of the ecosystem, interrelates with the agents, etc. The one is no less scientific than the other or less fundamental than the other. While both kinds of strategies are necessary, present-day science massively privileges uncontextualised strategies. On the other hand, it is at the level of contextualised strategies that new methods and partnerships can be set up and that the concept of relation to society and democracy takes on a new meaning.

    This approach is connected to the deployment of complex thought, since in both cases what is given priority is the plurality of approaches to arrive at more complete knowledge in contrast not only to present day science but to that of the first half of the 20th century. Reductionism becomes again only a possible scientific method and no longer the “golden rule” of scientific culture.


    Political and economic demands

    One example may illustrate all this: the selection of agricultural seeds. Bonneuil and Thomas11 have shown that the majority of research in this field, that appears to be uncontextualised and focused on the properties of the seeds alone, or even their genes, is in fact contextualised – but with a very precise perspective. The contextualised factors taken into account are not those of agricultural practice but the dominant political and economic demands.

    Developing an agriculture that enables increasing yields, reducing agricultural labour, creating a seed-producing industry, developing outlets for industry, meeting the expectations of millers and industrial bakers – all these factors are totally integrated into the logic of public research, which works in close cooperation with the selectors. These are very strong contextualising factors that determine the genetic criteria that are favoured. It is they that encourage the epistemic framework, Mendelian at first, then genetic and now transgenetic, allowing varieties to be obtained that best correspond to the productivist model being applied to agricultural production. This strategy that is positioned in an implicit context of capitalist economy is very largely based on a sub-discipline (plant genetics) and, to that extent, appears as uncontextualised, thus reinforcing the idea that only uncontextualised research can be scientific.

    For his part, Lacey studied the evaluation and selection of agricultural seeds in agro-ecological research.12 There, the seeds are considered in the context of a system of food production. This brings into play the sustainability of such production on economic, technical and social levels (that is to say the impact on biodiversity, social relations and the land). This strategy, clearly contextualised, requires the cooperation of a number of sub-disciplines and often implies a participatory approach. Nevertheless, scientifically both research strategies contribute to the accumulation of knowledge about seeds – neither is “more scientific” than the other.

    Thus the question is by what criteria one strategy is chosen over another and what are the consequences of such a choice. However, one can observe that today everything is done in a science subordinated to the knowledge economy to discredit, scientifically, the second strategy for reasons that are not scientific but based on values – those of neoliberalism, in fact. The hegemonic position of the uncontextualised tradition (which, as we have seen, may not in reality be totally uncontextualised) carefully conceals its contextualising factors. This corresponds to the mutual reinforcement between it and the values of a society based on domination, which favours the solution of problems by technological innovations that enable the massive exploitation of natural resources.

    This example illustrates the interactionsbetween choosing a strategy and choosing a society. Democracy would involve allowing plurality of approaches and strategies (and not doing the opposite: solely favouring another strategy) I have lingered over this example to illustrate what I mean by the necessity of changing the very structure of science. It can be seen, for example, that contextualised strategies require a complete overhaul of the present pigeon-holing of disciplines. This involves not only another way of carrying out research, interdisciplinary and linked to society, but also another way of teaching science. More fundamentally, it also means another way of thinking, in which reductionism and linear rationalism cease to be the only key to rationality. Thinking in terms of scientific activity in relation to the problems of society can, thus, also lead to raising epistemological questions.

    However, this is just an example, an illustration to open a field of research and thought, and not a ready-made recipe. Talking about plurality of approaches implies the necessity of (or at least the possibility of) unceasingly seeking new approaches, new strategies, and new frameworks for thought. But this does not mean doing anything one wants in whateverway one wants. The criteria of science (impartiality) that enables, for example, the peer evaluation of a research, are still valid as long as one does not (implicitly or not) add the criterion of submission to one or another paradigm, even if it is the dominant one.

    Is it, then, possible and desirable and even necessary to tackle such a task now?

    Possible,yes, since the science of complex systems is beginning to introduce, in the field of knowledge, precisely those concepts needed for thinking about plural research strategies. It is also possible because this plurality also addresses the requirement of cooperation between scientists and many social actors and citizens, which is coming into existence in society namely in reaction to techno-scientific terrorism. Finally, it is possible also since several examples already exist and because life is increasingly showing the limitations and even the dangers of uncontextualised science.13

    It is also desirable, because, once again, today’s science will be of use to the science of tomorrow, desirable also because there is a mutual strengthening between the practice and its acceptance in the minds of people. Since, for many scientists today, (and above all the young ones who have never known anything else) only uncontextualised strategies can be considered scientific, challenging this dogma is also to question the legitimacy of the society that imposes it.

    Finally, it is necessary because contextualised strategies are the ones that enable work between professional scientific staff and actors of “civil society”, joint work that will enable better mutual understanding and will make more general the involvement of citizens in the democratic management of scientific-policy choices. In other words, by working together on certain problems, even limited ones, starting now, citizen-scientists and citizens are preparing themselves for the democratic management of scientific policy.14




    This work, which was undertaken in the context of the Counter G20 in Nice (October 2011) has benefited from the thinking developed in the context of an Espaces Marx working group. I particularly thank Annick Jacq for her suggestions.

    2)  “l’OIN du plateau de Saclay: science contre démocratie ou science sans démocratie”  (The Operation of National Interest on the Saclay Complex: Science Against Democracy or Science Without Democracy) A. Jacq, Espaces Max pamphlet 2011

    3)  For an analysis of the effects of the knowledge economy on life sciences see: “Le vivant entre science et marché: une démocratie à inventer”, a collective work co-ordinated by J. Guespin et A. Jacq, syllepse/espaces Marx 2006. See also the articles that have appeared on the Espaces Marx site, under the heading “science et démocratie” (http://www.espaces-marx.net/spip.php?rubrique123).

    4)  As stated in the title of the forum organised during the Counter G20 in Nice (October 2011).

    5)  For “économie de la promesse” see “la trajectoire d’une promesse” www.espaces-marx.net/spip.php.

    6)  On the contrary, is there not, at present, with the climate crisis and world capitalism’s incapacity for dealing with it, more of a danger of nature’s mastery over humanity?

    7)  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, revised in 1970.

    8)  Hugh Lacey, Is Science Value Free? Values and Scientific Understanding,  Routledge 1999, 2005.

    9)  It was by seeking to interfere at the level of impartiality in the name of alleged “dialectical laws” that Lysenko turned his back on a scientific approach – and at the same time discredited dialectical logic in a long-lasting and damaging way!

    10)Hugh Lacey, “The Many Cultures and the Practices of Science”, 2010. Paper presented at the I Encuentro Internacional de Culturas, Cientificas y Alternativas Tecnologicas. See also Nicolas Lechoppier: “Sciences, valeurs et pluralisme” in Hugh Lacey.

    11)Christophe Bonneuil, Frédéric Thomas. Gènes, pouvoirs et profits: Recherche publique et régimes de production des savoirs de Mendel aux OGM (Genes, powers and profits: public research and production systems and knowledge from Mendel to GMOs), Éditeur Quae, Co-éditeur Fondation pour le progrès de l’Homme, Octobre 2009

    12)Hugh Lacey, Values and Objectivity in Science, 2005 Lexington Books.

    13)For example, bio-fuels.

    14)All those who get involved in these questions know to what extent this issue is difficult. Scientists like citizens agree implicitly in making science (but also scientific policy) an exclusive preserve that, de facto, winds up in the pockets of the multinationals.

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