19 November 2009

The corruption of scientific research

A scary article by Stuart Parkinson and Chris Langley in the New Scientist. Their organization, Scientists for Global Responsibility has looked at impact of commerce on science and technology over the past 20 years:
Over the past two decades, government policy in the US, UK and elsewhere has fundamentally altered the academic landscape in a drive for profit. ... Chemical engineering and geology are strongly linked to oil companies, for example, and it is hard to find an engineering department in the UK which does not receive funding from the arms industry. And many life sciences departments have extensive links with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. This creates enormous potential for conflicts of interest. ... Another cornerstone of science that is being eroded is the freedom to set the public research agenda so that it serves the public interest. Stop the sell-out, 'New Scientist', 7 November
Governments are increasingly focusing on the interests of corporations; and these are naturally enough focused on immediate financial benefit. The result? 'Environmental and social problems and 'blue sky' research commonly lose out to short-term commercial gain'.

It's the way of the world. As the gap between ordinary people and policymakers has widened, it has been filled by the corporations, and it is their interests that are best served under the current system. Sometimes these interests coincide with ours; often they don't; and far too often the two sets of interests conflict with each other. One reason for the disconnect between people and policymakers is the complexity of policy, focused as it is on legalistic debates about institutional structures and processes, spending patterns, personalities, image or ideology. Ordinary people aren't interested in such things. Above all we are concerned about outcomes - and that is about the only thing that policymakers do not target explicitly.

So instead of targeting something meaningful, like reducing the crime rate, governments make decisions about prisons, police numbers, justice procedures and the rest. Instead of targeting the rate of change of climatic variables, they target emissions of greenhouse gases, which by sheer coincidence require a large bureaucracy to oversee. And in matters such as scientific research, where government could usefully target broad social and environmental outcomes, it's the corporations and their goals that are served instead. Government just does not think in terms of outcomes, yet it is outcomes that matter most.

Social Policy Bonds would refocus our priorities onto outcomes. By relinquishing control over how things are done, governments could still set the agenda, but they would contract out the achievement of outcomes to the private sector. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, corporations would still play their part, and still have the chance of making profits, but only if they were efficient at achieving ordinary people's social and environmental goals. Government would become a matter of selecting and prioritising society's goals, and raising the revenue to achieve them. That would be healthier, in my view, than the current system, which is largely about government fulfilling the wishes of the private sector in pursuit of funds to finance re-election campaigns.

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