Scientific Research for Whom?

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 June 1998


This talk looks at the politics of everyday life and its effects on the science lab; how the funding of science affects the view of the world that science portrays; and how the daily social and economic pressures of everyday life affect the direction and outcomes of scientific research. Scientists should not just be more open about the political forces that set their research agendas, but should actively engage in making those political forces more accountable to the public, in exposing regressive agendas and in pressing for a science that serves public as opposed to elite interests.

This talk was given at the "Frontiers of Science Conference", held in Coimbra, Portugal.



I want to talk today about the politics of everyday life and its effects on the science lab. I want to talk about how the funding of science affects the view of the world that science portrays; and about how the daily social and economic pressures of everyday life - the mortgage, late nights because the baby was awake - affects the direction and outcomes of scientific research. And I want to make the case for a science in which scientists are not just more open about the political forces that set their research agendas but are actively engaged in making those political forces more accountable to the public, in exposing regressive agendas and in pressing for a science that serves the public interests as opposed to elite interests.

A Little Light - Mathematics

I want to start with a little mathematics. Here's the question. You're baking a pie. Now if it takes one minute to chop the onions, one minute to chop the carrots, one minute to dice the potatoes, and 20 minutes to cook in the oven, how long does it take to make the pie?

Twenty-three minutes, right? Well, right and wrong. Research by social scientists suggests that everyday problem solving is far from uncontroversial [J. Lave, 1996; L. Nader, 1996: J. Gay and M. Cole, 1967]. As Jean Lave notes, people adapt their mathematical reasoning as they move from one practical context to another [J. Lave, 1996]. To many people, for example, it is far from obvious that the pie will take 23 minutes to make. What about the 20 minutes needed to heat the oven? Or the 3 minutes for washing up the chopping board and chopping knives?

OK. OK. That's silly you say. You can't expect us to take that into account. That wasn't the question. That's cheating. Well, I don't think it is. Given such assumptions, an answer of 23 paints a picture of the world that does not ring true.

I use the example to make a simple point: even maths -- supposedly the most value free of the sciences -- is full of implicit assumptions. All analysis - no matter how simple - takes place within a cultural context and is riddled with cultural assumptions. And scientific analysis, regardless of claims to the contrary, is no exception. As the feminist critic and sociologist Sandra Harding points out:

"An outpouring of recent studies in every area of the social studies of the sciences forces the recognition that all scientific knowledge is always, in every respect, socially situated. Neither knowers nor the knowledge they produce are or could be impartial, disinterested, value-neutral, Archimedean." [S. Harding, 1991:13].

She goes on:

"... Inanimate nature always comes to us culturally preconstructed as a possible object of knowledge, just as do humans. Humans construct themselves as possible objects of knowledge and have also constructed inanimate nature as a possible object of knowledge. We cannot "strip nature bare" to "reveal her secrets" as conventional world views have held, for no matter how long the striptease continues or how rigorous its choreography, we will always find under each "veil" only nature-as-conceptualised-within-culture projects: we will always (but not only) find more veils. Moreover, the very attempt to strip nature bare weaves more veils, it turns out. Nature-as-an-object-of-knowledge stimulates culture, and science is part of the cultural activity that continually produces nature-as-an-object-of-knowledge in culturally specific forms."

Value Free?

For subaltern and oppressed groups -- women and ethnic minorities, for example -- the influence of cultural assumptions in setting scientific research agendas and in framing scientific analysis has long been obvious.

Let me give a couple of examples, the first drawn from a study of research on reproductive hazards by my colleague at The Corner House, Sarah Sexton. She points out that much of the early research on reproductive hazards in the workplace - along with corporate and legislative responses to the confirmation of such hazards -- was framed by ideological assumptions about human reproduction and working women.

The first and most obvious of these assumptions was that reproduction is the domain of women - and women alone. "As a result, the effects of substances have usually been assessed by considering whether exposure of the mother during pregnancy increases the risks of birth defects in the child. The route of effect is taken through the woman alone; the critical time is taken to be the period of pregnancy alone, and birth defects are assumed to be the only relevant adverse effect to be looked for." [S. Sexton, 1993]

By not regarding human reproduction as a wider continuum in which men as well as women play a part, the hazards which substances pose to the reproductive health of men and to the foetus through men have been consistently overlooked. A partial, sexist and culturally-determined view of reproduction has resulted in a research agenda in which men have, until recently, been all but invisible. Yet the paucity of research on paternal exposure and the absence of regulation protecting men's health does not mean that men are invulnerable to reproductive hazards. Far from it. As we now know, men exposed to oestrogen-containing chemicals - in food as much as in the workplace - are now showing lower sperm counts; men exposed to radiation in the workplace are now know to put their children at risk of leukaemia in early childhood; and children of men exposed to DBCP and a range of other hazards are now known to have higher rates of birth defects.

Here then is one example of scientific research being subtle but decisively skewed by cultural assumptions -- in this instance about reproduction being solely "women's business".

Built in Abuse

Another example of unspoken ideological assumptions framing scientific research comes from the field of contraceptives. Judith Richter, a German researcher, has closely followed the research currently being undertaken to develop anti-fertility vaccines, which aim to trick the body's immune system into generating a temporary immune reaction against those cells or molecules essential to reproduction -- namely, the hormones that trigger the monthly ripening and release of egg cells in women or the continuous production of sperm in men; the egg or sperm themselves; or pregnancy-related hormones.

As it happens, trials have shown the contraceptives to be unreliable and largely ineffective. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the individual user, they are a disaster and pose high risks.

Nonetheless the research continues. Why? The answer, argues Richter is that the "population" framework in which the research takes place - and which sets its agenda -- is less concerned with the reliability or risks of the contraceptives from an individual user's perspective: it is motivated instead by a search for a reliable method of mass population control. Richter quotes one Australian immunologist: "fertility-regulating vaccines offer the most practical way of controlling the birth rate, particularly in developing countries." [J. Richter, 1996]

As Richter comments: "A conceptual framework underscored by a preoccupation with 'overpopulation' does not mean that those engaged in contraceptive research and family planning intend to disregard peoples' health and well-being ... But as long as immuno-contraceptives are perceived as "vaccines" against pregnancy epidemics or as "antigenic weapons" in the "family planning armamentarium", the well-being of individuals using the contraceptive is likely to remain a lesser priority."

The framework in which the contraceptives are being developed - a framework which views pregnancy as a disease and population control as an overriding priority - has resulted in a birth control technology that is open to gross abuse, not least because it is intended to be administered on a mass basis. Had the framework been based on different ideological and political assumptions, a very different research agenda - and outcome - would have resulted. Instead of focusing on controlling births, for example, it might have focused on the integrity, dignity and well-being of individual users - and on giving them greater control over their own reproductive behaviour.

Abuse? Not our problem

Many scientists acknowledge that scientific research can be misapplied but place the blame entirely on politicians or the industries that apply their supposedly pure research in socially irresponsible ways.[S. Harding, 1991:2] They accept that Frankensteins happen, but turn a blind eye to how they get created. As Sandra Harding puts it: "How the monster actually got created - and gets nourished and reproduced day after day - retreats into the shadows, as if there are no persons or institutional practices that we can hold responsible for the shape of the sciences and the kind of social order with which they have been in partnership."[S. Harding, 1991:2-3]

The irony is that whilst scientists unversed in the workings of power continue to insist on a separation between "pure" and "applied" research, politicians and industrialists have never entertained such a confusion.

They are well aware of how thin - if not non-existent - is the dividing line between so-called "pure" research and "applied" research. One remembers, for example, the extraordinary lengths that the US government went to ensure that the US - rather than the Russians - got hold of the many "pure research" scientists who had been working on the Nazi regime's rocket programme. They even turned a blind eye to the involvement of many of these scientists in the most hideous experiments on concentration camp inmates, providing them with new identities under a secret project code-named "Project Paperclip".

Industry too knows the value of ensuring that pure research has strong corporate links - and that it is captured and controlled before it becomes a resource for rivals.

There are good reasons for this. I can think of at least four:

  • First, controlling research, primarily through funding, gives industry effective control over its results.

    I cite just one example, taking from the late Robert van Den Bosch, a distinguished entomologist who was so alarmed by the influence of corporate funding on the reliability of pesticide research that he went pubic in a path-breaking book, The Pesticide Conspiracy. [R. van Den Bosch, 1980]

    Van den Bosch was an outspoken critic of what he termed "the pesticide mafia" - that powerful group of vested interests which keep modern agriculture "hooked" on the use of pesticides. This mafia's most powerful weapon is money and it uses it ruthlessly. By manipulating the system of grants to those universities carrying out research on pest-control, the pesticide industry ensures that many researchers are effectively in its pocket, afraid of stepping out of line for fear of losing their funding. Those mavericks who refuse to tailor their research results to the dictates of the industry often find themselves harassed, even intimidated and, certainly threatened.

    A case in point cited by Van den Bosch is that of a young researcher at the University of California who found hat commercial samples of canned tomatoes which had been heavily sprayed contained as many insects as samples which received no pesticides. He decided to write this up in a paper. But the tomato canners got wind of this and sent a delegation to the university administrators to complain about the manuscript and to threaten the withdrawal of grants were the paper to be published. The university brass, upset by the prospect, suggested to the researcher that he back off. His description of his reaction reflects the reality of life in many research laboratories: as he put it to van Den Bosch, "Hell, Van, what could I do? I was just a little guy raising a family and up for promotion. You better believe I tore that manuscript up".

    This is just one of numerous examples of corporate intimidation influencing research and setting research agendas. Other, which I could cite, are to be found in just about every research field: from the nuclear physics to public health and the social sciences. In the field of biotechnology, for example, corporate funding is frequently tied to the right to the first look at research results and to the right to delay publication until patent possibilities are investigated. As one researcher working on a project sponsored by Hoechst recently put it, "Essentially everyone in that lab is an indentured servant to Hoechst."[H. Hobbelink, 1991"39] Another researcher, referring to a biotech programme at Washington University funded by Monsanto, is on record as saying, "No research can be done unless the company gives permission".

  • Secondly, and more subtly, corporate grants enable companies to control more than just individual projects: they play a key role in setting the wider framework for research.

    Although direct corporate grants to universities and research stations generally constitute a small proportion of total research budgets (with government providing the vast bulk of funds), corporate grants are an important source of power within research departments, particularly where a research department is otherwise underfunded. Corporate funding brings financial security to a project, conferring an "importance" which it might otherwise not deserve, and enhancing the status of the researcher within the department. By a perverse logic, the capacity to "bring in" corporate funds becomes a route to promotion -- with the result that key administrative posts within universities and research institutes have come to be dominated by those who share industry's priorities.

    Indeed, because corporate funding enables researchers to leverage matching funding from governments, even small amounts of corporate funding have a disproportionate influence on the wider orientation of public research. In effect, through the strategic placing of research grants, industry is able to direct public funds into research that best serves its interests. With universities now themselves acting increasingly as businesses, they too are beginning to push the research agenda in a direction that suits their bottom line. In agriculture, for example, biotech research is being funded in the hope that it will yield patentable processes and products to form part of the universities future endowment. Meanwhile, research work on organic agriculture, which could bring broader social and environmental benefits, is being neglected or eliminated.

    Inevitably, this corporate research orientation within universities and other public institutions filters through into the curricula of training colleges. In Britain, for example, full-time education for students of agriculture or horticulture is free (funded by the government) and courses on all aspects of industrial agriculture are readily available. By contrast, even today, the number of courses covering organic agriculture is extremely limited.

  • Closely allied to the above comes a third reason why corporate funding of research yields such high political returns for industry: networking.

    Where an industry, like the agrochemical industry, is able to dominate both research and training, it is able to operate against a backdrop that is broadly sympathetic to its aims and views. With a common background and approach, those trained or employed in the mainstream can move freely between the academic sector, the public sector and government itself. The result is a hand-in-glove relationship between the industry and its supposed regulators.

    That revolving door relationship between industry and the wider agricultural and academic community is most conspicuous in the make-up of the committees which decide on policy. In the Netherlands, in the early 1990s, for example, over one third of the seats on the committee which decided on research funding for biotechnology had been assigned to commercial companies, with over half of these being controlled by the four top transnationals. [T. Clunies-Ross and N. Hildyard, 1991]

    Through careful nurturing of the personal contacts that begin with a modest research grant and culminate in the grantee having a civil service post -- contacts which are reinforced through membership of the same professional organisations and through mutually-reinforcing friendships -- industry interests are thus able to maximise the chances that their voice is heard -- and heeded -- in government. And that is the pay-off for funding research -- even supposedly unrelated research.

  • And, fourth, in an age of patents, research funding is a route to securing monopoly control over certain product lines - and thus markets.

    Consider the research contract that Monsanto has entered into with Washington University in St. Louis, which is researching the medicinal use of plants by the Aguaruna people of Peru. Under the contract, Monsanto is allowed to test, patent and commercialise products derived from the plant samples obtained by the University. In return, Monsanto "compensates" the Aguaruna and agrees to pay Peru royalties on any product sales. Peru, meanwhile, provides, quote, "legal certainty that Monsanto has the patent rights to any compounds discovered under this contract." [Monsanto, 1998]

    Monsanto and other companies argue that such patents are necessary to recoup the costs of the research. In reality, as the more candid members of the biotechnology industry openly admit, the patents are about establishing monopoly rights over markets and areas of research. Gordon Wright of the French healthcare and beauty group, Sanofi, is quite candid: "Keeping innovative companies at bay is the most difficult part of the job". [G. Wright, 1997] He compares patenting with mountaineering: if your goal is to be the first to climb a 10,000 foot mountain, it is to your advantage to make sure that no-one else climbs anywhere in the mountain range. Thus whilst a small group of researchers and scientists have established themselves in the rarefied atmosphere of Camp Three of Everest, the legal system should try and stop others even getting to the foothills. patents are one of the principle instruments companies have relied upon until now to do so.

Political Infrastructure

Funding scientific research is thus one of the key tools which industry uses to build the political infrastructure which it needs to operate. It uses it to ring-fence markets. It uses it to instrumentalise its agenda. It uses it -- alongside PR and polling -- to create a public amenable to its interests.[Lohmann, L., 1998] And it uses it to build networks of administrators and bureaucrats friendly to its interests.

This should not surprise us. However powerful a corporation may be economically, its Chief Executive Officer and its planners know full well that to operate effectively at the national and international level, they must capture the local. For to lose control over the local is to become an outsider. It is to be bereft of allies and insiders who can help master and manipulate local patterns of control in ways that are friendly to transnational interests. They need to reach down, out of the boardroom to the level of the farm, the household and, yes, the laboratory, to build the tacit alliances, the patron-client relationships and the buddy-buddy friendships that enable them to operate.

A Two-Way Process

Should this worry us? In my view, yes, it should worry us greatly. Who controls scientific research -- and in whose interest -- affects us all. And not just in obvious ways.

The picture that science paints of the world -- a direct result of the research it undertakes -- affects more than just the gee-whiz products that are available for us to buy.

The lack of research on how chemicals affects men's reproductive capacity, for example, reifies the view that reproduction is "women's business" alone, with important consequences for women's health as a social group.

Or again, the star billing given to the human genome project reifies the view that the essence of humanity can somehow be captured and reduced to a hypothetical sequence of DNA, whilst, in reality every human differs from every other -- and there is no such thing (other than in the scientific imagination) as THE human genome.

And with such reductionist thinking comes a climate in which the public is perhaps less questioning of the threat posed by what Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Ward have called the eugenics of normalcy -- "normality" being defined by arbitrary genetic models of standard human beings and gene testing being used to weed out those who do not conform. [R. Hubbard and E Ward, 1993]

The Laboratory is Political

Science is political. No scientist, however pure his or her research may appear to be, can escape the political setting in which science operates - or its political power in setting public agendas.

But scientists do not have to stand meekly by when such agendas are regressive. And there are many honourable cases where they have refused to do so. With the public good increasingly being pushed into the background by the increasing power of corporations in setting research agendas, my plea would be for scientists to take the challenge seriously and become actively engaged in making research more accountable to the public, in exposing regressive agendas and in pressing for a science that serves the public interests as opposed to elite interests.


R. van Den Bosch, 1980, The Pesticide Conspiracy, Prism Press, Dorchester, 1980.

T. Clunies-Ross and N. Hildyard, 1991, The Politics of Industrial Agriculture, Earthscan, London.

Gay, J. and Cole, M., 1967, The New Mathematics and Old Culture, New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.

S. Harding, 1991, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, Thinking from Women's Lives, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

H. Hobbelink, H., 1991, Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture, Zed Books, London.

R. Hubbard and E. Ward, 1993 Exploding the Gene Myth, Beacon Press.

J. Lave, 1996, "The Savagery of the Domestic Mind", in Nader, L., Naked Science: Anthropological Inquiries into the Boundaries of Power and Knowledge, Routledge, London.

Lohmann, L., 1998, Whose Voice is Speaking? How opinion polling and cost-benefit analysis synthesize new 'Publics', Corner House Briefing 7, Sturminster Newton. Corner House Briefing No.7

Monsanto, 1998, "Bioprospecting contract seeks fairness" in Monsanto, Report on Sustainable Development 1997, St Louis, p.28.

J. Richter, 1996, Vaccination Against Pregnancy: Miracle or Menace?, Zed Books, London.

S. Sexton, 1993, "The Reproductive Hazards of Industrial Chemicals: The Politics of Protection".

G. Wright, 1997, Is there a future for pharmaceutical patents in the 21st century?, Keynote Address at EuroForum Conference, "Patent Protection for the Pharmaceutical and Biotech Industries", London, 20 November.