In ‘The anarchy and oligopoly of science’ the third instalment of his essay on the implication of electronic peer-to-peer networks for culture, science, security and globalisation, Siva Vaidhyanathan sees the free information flows at the heart of science as under threat from the mercantilist economy, the post 9/11 security frenzy, the exclusive ownership of genetic databases and by science policies of governments and universities.
I have met Siva twice, and I have always enjoyed both his lecture and his imposing personality. But he has always surprised me with the simplicity and honesty or is it the naivety with which he presents and develops his argument (and I’m still not sure which is right). On the issue of science about which, as a Biologist and Research Coordinator, I suppose I am professionally qualified to comment I fear that naiveté is getting the better of Siva
In ‘The anarchy and oligopoly of science’ Siva assimilates to his conception of productive anarchy, emblematic of free and open communication. He presents us with an idealistic and utopian vision of science as “the most successful, open and distributed communicative system human beings have ever created and maintained.” I have a far more cynical view of science.
Science is not, and has never been, an ‘open’ system
To begin with, I am afraid Siva is forgetting the historic association between science and the Black Art (1) performed by philosophers, sorcerers, wizards, and witches, practised in margins of the society.
Since its earliest origins science was a domain accessible only to the initiate, usually written in an esoteric language that a few were able to understand. In Antiquity science was written in Greek and during the transition between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, scientific discoveries of the Greeks and Romans were preserved in Arabic, whose empire flourished during the Dark Age of the West.
In the following century, the use of Latin, by then already a ‘langue morte’ for quite some time, restricted its distribution just as the circulation of the Gospel of Christ was confined by language; one of many intriguing parallels between science and religion which only in our time are considered incompatible opposites.
There is one reason for both Science and Christ message being written in a non-secular language: control. Copyright as a mean of control well go back to the mid sixteenth century, but its essence goes back even further. This control was about limiting the circulation and distribution of knowledge, preserving the power of those who knew over those who didn’t and limiting the transmission of this knowledge.
How have things changed since then? The language of science is still as hermetic as it was centuries ago. One could look with envy and admiration to the “blind” peer-review process supposed to ensure the quality and seriousness of the work published. But in reality, because of the “credential” and “expertise” that Siva describes very well, peer-review is more a myopic process than a blind one.
Likewise, Siva believes that “Science and academia should be radically democratic”. But they are not. The credentials and expertise ensure that the “mandarins” (2) exercise full control over what is going on in their departments. These influential and often senior scientists have control and power over a little empire of their own and fight one against another to stay in power. They use Siva’s much-vaunted ‘democratic peer review network’ as a battleground for their own personal struggles.
Science is a secretive micro-society which jealously guards its knowledge.
“Science is a method. Science is a culture”, writes Siva. It’s also a lot of dogmas on which many have built their reputation. A reputation that others fight to establish their own reputation and dogmas. Copernicus was fighting Aristotle’s dogma; Einstein was fighting Newton’s dogma. And Darwin was fighting a dogma approved by Linnaeus, Lord Kelvin and other eminent, recognised and well-established scientists who would have done anything in their power to silence the “evolutionists”.
No, science is neither democratic nor it is anarchic.
The commercialisation of science is not new either. Scientists have always been dependent on patronage then on government funding and more recently on charities. Scientists have had to beg for money and in exchange of a marketable product were allowed to continue the research they were really interested in.
In Bertold Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”, Galileo (3) presents the Venetian Republic with a new invention - the telescope, that will revolution the art of war and gives an advantage to the Republic. Of course, at the same time, Dutch telescopes were readily available at every corner of every street, but Galileo needed money to continue his research.
When Galileo’s scam is exposed, he exclaims:
“How am I supposed to work with the bailiffs in the house? And [my daughter] Virginia will soon have to have a dowry: she’s not bright. Then I like buying books about other things besides physics, and I like a decent meal. Good meals are when I get most of my ideas. A degraded age! They were paying me less than the carter who drives their wine barrels. Four cords of firewood for two courses on mathematics. Now I have managed to squeeze 500 scudi out of them, but I’ve still got debts, including some dating twenty years back. Give me five years off to research, and I’d have proved it all”
Brecht wrote four hundred years after the time of Galileo, but he puts his finger on an ever present dilemma: The problem of science is money. Copyright and associated mercantilism is a consequence of the lack of it and a way for the scientist to do their research.
Scientists in academia are underpaid and this is also a way to control science. Ridiculous salaries are keeping away bright people from science, which is then left in the hand of foreign scientists who don’t mind working 8am to 8pm, six days a week for peanuts. (Interestingly, the US case is exemplary here, were research is directed and managed by “white” Americans but performed by foreigners, mostly Asians. In this context an increase in visa restriction would lead US science to be deprived of its manpower. I’d like to see that happening, just out of curiosity.)
It is true that there are some attempts made to form free and open collaborative netwroks and in particular in the publishing sector. However, initiative such as BioMed Central (4) does not come free for the scientist who wants to publish his work on line. There is a hefty fee to pay to make your work accessible freely to other and I don’t personally see why I should use my charity money to pay up to $500 to have my work published.
Siva raised “the spectre of redundant, imperfect and competitive private [genetic] database that would […] raised transaction cost for companies that wish to develop drugs or therapies” On the contrary, this competition between databases is not only healthy as they require their owner to provide the best service to survive. Also they are the real sign that there is some anarchy in science. If there were to be only one central and unique database, it would be the paradigm of a dogmatic and unproductive scientific approach. As a daily user of these scientific databases, I can assure you that not only I know which one are good and which one are not but that the diversity of information they present is reassuring knowing the anarchistic and sometime unreliable nature of scientific information collected.
The SNP case is here paradigmatic. It is true that lone companies have tried to patent hundreds of SNPs. Today the Wellcome Trust and several other pharmaceutical companies have joined in an effort to generate a publicly accessible database of SNPs (5). Before that the NCBI has also make its own database available for free (6). However, Celer (7), the private consortium that sequenced the human genome, has also developed its own database (using public data) and it is believe that this database is better annotated than the freely available one. In a domain where “variability” is the fundamental point of research and its medical exploitation, the more information are available the better it is.
Siva asks what if Leibnitz had had to ask Newton for permission to work on calculus? The problem in research is not that much of copyright, government restriction and mercantilism; it’s about time, money, and freedom. Brecht’s Galileo asked, “So what’s the good of free research without free time to research in? What happens to its results?”
Roger TATOUD holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology (University Pierre & Marie Currie, Paris, France). His scientific expertise embraces cell biology and oncology, and he has a keen interest in Science and Society. He is Science Advisory Editor for Blueear.com and a member of the BA (formerly British Association for the Advancement of Science). He has worked in several scientific institutions across the UK and is now research coordinator at the Imperial College London.
While recognising that the truth as to how science works is almost certainly somewhere between the views expressed in the original article and in Roger Tatoud's eloquent reply, isn't it interesting that when Dr Tatoud writes
"Copernicus was fighting Aristotle's dogma; Einstein was fighting Newton's dogma. And Darwin was fighting a dogma approved by Linnaeus, Lord Kelvin and other eminent, recognised and well-established scientists who would have done anything in their power to silence the "evolutionists"."
he picks only examples where the 'correct' argument won out in the end. Doesn't that say something for the power of the scientific process?
"He [myself] picks only examples where the 'correct' argument won out in the end. Doesn't that say something for the power of the scientific process?"
... For now... Truth in science is ever relative. I would like to take another example. Scientists disagree and are fighting over the use and development of genetic testing and GM food. Both sides could present a reasonable argumentation for or against these technologies. One day, we may well all be a bunch of super human fed with GM food. But it is now impossible to predict a) if it will happen b) if is "correct".
Meanwhile both GM food and Genetic testing have shown how the scientific community was unable to communicate on these two issues, and dogmatic position have replaced rational discussion.
Let me try and make my point again; I agree (as I think any scientist would have to) that at the moment we do not have a definitive answer to questions such as the safety of GM food. What I would, however, suggest is that the scientific method is the most efficient way we know of of reaching correct answers to such difficult problems.
At the moment, evidence for and against GM food is being collected; the essential point is that it is the scientific method gives us a way of judging this evidence. The only useful definition of 'correct' is 'supported by evidence collected in a scientific manner'; any other definition leads us further from being able to make an informed decision on these matters. It is through the process of scientific dispute that solutions are reached.
To deal with the other point, Roger Tatoud writes 'scientific truth is only ever relative'. I wonder how strong a statement this is intended to be? If it means 'no scientific truth is ever completely established', then all it does it to point to the strength of the scientific method - it provides a way of checking established doctrines (whether you mean such doctrines are overthrown gradually or in Kuhn-style revolutions). If, however, he means 'no scientific theory is more accurate than those that come before', I fail to see how such a statement could be supported given examples such as the incorporation of Newtonian gravity into Einsteinian relativity.
Finally, let me say I appreciate the responce to my initial post and look forward to hearing any other comments.