"Are we all asleep?" blasted Professor Shiv Visvanathan from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. "All over the planet, especially in the majority world to which I belong, crimes are being carried out in the name of scientific and technological progress. Yet every few months conferences like this come together and do little more than discuss their fashionably abstract theories."
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Science?
Scientists should come down from their 'ivory towers' and admit their profession's failure to exert any real changes in the lives of ordinary people, writes Tom Wakeford
Monday May 14, 2001
One by one, the panellists surveyed the changing fortunes of science in recent years - the lack of reverence for its practitioners among the public, worries about their dependence on corporate funds, and the rise of alternative knowledge systems from Amazonian medicine to Feng Shui. Just when the mutual admiration and black-slapping was about to finish, the dynamite exploded.
"Are we all asleep?" blasted Professor Shiv Visvanathan from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. "All over the planet, especially in the majority world to which I belong, crimes are being carried out in the name of scientific and technological progress. Yet every few months conferences like this come together and do little more than discuss their fashionably abstract theories. What has happened to our politics?"
Delegates shuffled uncomfortably in their seats as he went on to scorn the almost complete lack of representation of Third World perspectives at the meeting. The steep prices for registration and accommodation had not helped.
Coming from a nation with 400m below the poverty-line, suffering the after-effects of not only the Bhopal gas disaster, but the often devastating health and environmental damage wrought by the Green Revolution, Professor Shiv was angry at his colleagues for their complacency. Was it not hypocritical of them to make careers out of their critiques of scientific knowledge, while making no effort to leave their cosy seminar rooms to try and change things?
A Californian arose from the audience to protest that she and her fellow cultural theorists were "subtly redefining what it means to be political". She didn't think her Indian colleague quite understood that. Professor Shiv brushed her comment aside. "What we need," he continued, "is a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission for science". While the exercise led by Bishop Desmond Tutu was aimed at a systematic exposure of the wrongs of apartheid in South Africa, this new one would be international, and would look at the mistakes made by science and technology in the twentieth century. Scientists must be brought face to face with the human rights violations committed either by them or in their name, he suggested. Only by coming to terms with their past complicity could technocrats reform their future behaviour.
Talking to Professor Shiv after the event, what interested me was that his critique is a challenge not only to science. He also has social sciences and the humanities in his sights. If the natural sciences are so compromised by commercial interests and shady ethics, surely it is up to those trained to analyse social and moral dimensions to expose it and speak out. Although the occasional academic risks the ridicule of their colleagues by making a personal stand, for most of us researchers, the cliche of being cut off in towers of ivory is all too appropriate.
Though may seem shocking, for Professor Shiv apartheid was all too appropriate an analogy for the suffering caused by 20th century technology. In both systems a small minority was given huge and unaccountable power over the lives of its fellow citizens. When challenged, both elites would justify their power by claiming that those they subjugated were too primitive and ignorant to be trusted. Having spent much of the late 20th century in underground struggle, the ANC was eventually triumphant. Yet most societies today are beholden to a process of scientific and technological innovation over which they still have no effective democratic control.
Such a system of knowledge apartheid would not be so bad if citizens could rely on their masters to get it right. But many academics are so far removed from the real world that their ability to apply new innovations, in such a way that ensures our rights are protected, is tragically lacking. Meanwhile, those who have more direct contact with the application of knowledge are usually in the pockets of big business, whose focus will inevitably be on short term profits rather than the common good.
Hence we have a laboratory in Nottingham inventing tasteless GM tomatoes that can withstand herbicides and transport for long distances, when what consumers want is tasty organic food that is grown as locally as possible. Transport laboratories in places like Dagenham receive funds for improving catalytic converters to try and reduce people's exposure to air pollution caused by the school run, when what many parents want is streets safe enough for their children to walk to school.
Maybe a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for science will initially be seen as an unwelcome interruption for our secluded scholars. Yet it could easily become an honourable way for scientists, and other academics supposedly concerned with human progress, to admit their professions' failings in the 20th century with a view to coming back down to earth and preventing a further decline in our esteem for them.