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Science and Society How science really works

Scientists don’t work in ‘ivory towers’ – they work with the political reality they perceive around them, write ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

​​OVER the past week, a great festival of working people and activists have gathered in Glasgow alongside Cop26 for the People’s Summit. 

The Star has done well in giving only perfunctory coverage to the rote machinations of the “climate glitterati” in the conference halls, choosing instead to give more space to the real sites of intellectual activity in the city — the places where activists and workers have convened to speak to each other.

Over the past few weeks, members of the Science and Society team have been privileged to take part in discussions about science and politics: first at an event hosted by the Marx Memorial Library and also at a People’s Summit event run by the Cut-Through Collective. We’ve been able to join in valuable discussions about how science is actually practised. 
 
After a bifurcating education system that divides people entering university into “scientists” and “non-scientists,” the model of academic science is a hierarchical pyramid. 

The vast majority of academic science — the practical work of doing experiments, analysing data, writing papers — is done by workers on fixed-term contracts. Whether Covid-19 or climate models, most of the labour is performed by staff on temporary contracts that last often just two years.

After a science PhD (a relatively low-paid position with fewer legal protections, but one that lasts three to four years), those who remain in academic science must get a temporary job in science called a postdoctoral position or “postdoc.” 

These are generally paid for by grant funding won by permanent staff. As the amount of money in science has grown, the number of these short term jobs has grown even faster. The time people spend working in multiple postdocs just keeps growing too. 

Being a postdoc normally means working on a project that permanent staff have planned out. Delivering quickly means working long hours. 

Some postdocs have their own funding, but the timescales remain just as tight. Seven-day weeks are not uncommon, particularly for experimentalists who think nothing of starting experiments at weekends in a world where speed is everything. 

In theory, after six to10 years jumping between contracts, postdocs are in a position to win the goal of a permanent position. In practice, the majority remain in temporary positions until they leave academic research, either because they are perceived as too old or because they can no longer bear the unacceptable conditions. 

A very small minority get re-employed on short-term contracts in the same research team for decades. The sector thrives on a lack of political education and organising strength among young and naive workers. 

This was a political decision taken in the structure of higher education management and theorised 40 years ago, as has been carefully documented by sociologist Professor Carole Leathwood. 

Those who survive this to obtain a permanent contract should, in theory, have more freedom. But this is not the case. Once a scientist achieves a permanent contract, their main role switches very quickly. 

They become a “group leader” who heads up their own research group and generates short-term employment. Group leaders undergo a huge switch, from being a researcher to being an almost full-time manager and administrator of junior scientists whose primary role is winning funding.

This is extraordinarily time-consuming. It means writing grant applications to bring in money. These proposals are “business cases” for research: quite literally so, given that many research funders such as the British government’s funding councils have headline aims for the research they fund to contribute to “economic growth.”

A survey of grants for the Australian Health and Medical Research Council found that preparing a proposal took an average of 38 working days: that’s around two months. Just 20 per cent of these were successful. That fits our experience of the situation in Britain too. 

It’s hard to overstate how wasteful this system is. But it is remarkably effective at producing an atmosphere where scientists worry about where the next tranche of money is coming from. It keeps them focused on well-funded research areas and topics, and produces booms and busts in hot research topics. 

This matters in the context of climate change. The past few years have seen a change in the narrative from fossil fuel corporations. BP and Shell have switched from a strategy of overt denialism to one of “net zero”: continuing to burn fossil fuels, but promising to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the future to compensate. 

They are pushing the narrative that as the biggest contributors to climate change, they must logically be at the centre of efforts to deal with it, and therefore control the direction it takes. Governments are happy to agree. 

This is an attempt to condition the role of science and scientists. But corporations have huge scientific person-power of their own. In truth, they don’t need academic science to help them achieve their technological goals (though of course, it’s cheaper if they can outsource the work). 

They do, however, need the legitimacy that academic science provides. Controlling the funding streams restricts work with different ideological agendas. The stamp of academic respectability allows them to continue pushing their own. 

Scientists work with the political reality they perceive. Trained by years of precarious employment and a constant pressure to win money, a “pragmatism” inculcated in them tells them that it is better to work “with” BP than it is to refuse. 

But the former represents business-as-usual — the key word being “business” — and that is precisely what society cannot afford. 

Yes, we should pursue carbon capture as one of many options. But its promise of technological salvation is only the latest in a pattern of unrealised scams that have been used to stop action on reducing fossil fuels. Oil companies will stop at nothing to keep extracting fossil fuels and making a profit from it.
  
In order to make a better science, scientists need to remain politically engaged. The structure of the modern scientific workplace makes that difficult. 

That means if you’re friends with someone who works as a scientist, you need to ask them about what they do. Ask them about the research they would do in an ideal world if they had the money. Don’t accept the answer that they would be doing exactly what they’re doing — force them to dream big.

Scientists are well-used to the common reactions to their work: whether dismissive, indifferent or impressed, the theme is that their work is incomprehensible. This idea contributes to scientists feeling like a modern-day secular priesthood. Don’t let them feel this way. 

The crucial thing here is that it won’t just help you to frame how their intellectual labour is used and manipulated. It will help them as well. You’ll be giving them the opportunity to bring their critical faculties to bear on what they do. Otherwise they may not think about these questions at all. 

Despite the title of this column (borrowed from JBS Haldane), “science” is not to be contrasted with “society.” It is inextricably enmeshed within it. As the historian of science Professor Helena Sheehan puts it, Marxism takes science seriously from two different directions: by both recognising its achievements and impacts and also by recognising the way that structural forces shape it. 

Fossil fuel corporations want to use science to preserve their profitability in a world with devastating climate change. We cannot expect science to save “us” from climate change — unless that science is shaped by a politics that wants to see us saved. 

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