Set Knowledge Free: The University as a Public Good

A Talk to the Student Occupations at University College London and Kings College, Cambridge.

27-28 November, 2010

Thank you very much

Today I am going to talk about how we might reform the university and establish it as a venue for promoting the public good. Whether we like it or not we are in the midst of a massive global crisis. I think we need to be thinking about solutions to that crisis, as well as resisting the Coalition’s crazed austerity measures.

The university, as we know, focuses on education and research. It provides a technical education or a grounding in the humanities, for a minority of the population. And it develops specialist knowledge in science and the humanities.

A quick word about the educational role of the universities.

In normal times university education prepares young people for a privileged position in society – as ideological workers in journalism, public relations and advertising, as lawyers and doctors, corporate managers, financiers and so on.
What you are doing now is highly significant because it allows you to discuss with each other, and with others, what kind of world you want to be educated for. It is unnerving to the governing powers, too – to the extent that you start to build a movement with others.

Now, the increasing use of market forces in education, health and public administration is closely linked to the expansion of finance. The notion that public goods can be transformed into as commodities opens up glittering prospects for financial institutions. The most glittering prize of all is healthcare – I hope that you will think about making links with campaigns to resist the Coalition’s plans for privatization by stealth in that sector.

This idea – that public goods can be commodified – also helps entrench the social power of banks and similar institutions, by making it more difficult to conceive of another way of securing the public good.

Market forces become the only forces in society.

Does anyone else think it is strange that the financial sector, having benefited from a massive public bailout, is now the most active recruiter in universities like UCL and, I imagine, Cambridge? Does anyone think it odd that the former head of an oil company was responsible for a report about the future of university education?

Today I want to say a little about the research side of the equation. The generation of expert knowledge constitutes perhaps the most significant contribution by universities to the wider society. Student protests are always vulnerable to accusations of self-interest, or self-indulgence. What was the Daily Mail headline? – ‘Rage of the Girl Rioters’, something like that. But if you look closely at the relationship between elite power and the research agenda, it seems to me that you can develop a simple argument for radical reform of the university that will resonate much more widely.

So. Who determines the research agenda at the universities? And to what end? What are the consequences for the integrity of the university as an institution? And what are the consequences for society as a whole?

The answer is fairly straightforward. The state and the most powerful factions in the capitalist economy dominate decision-making in both social and natural science.

Let’s take social science first. What is the most prestigious social science? Put it another way – which social science has a Nobel Prize all of its own? OK. The Nobel Prize for Media Studies? … No. It’s the Nobel Prize for economics. Economics is the top predator – economists are the physicists of social science. And who determines the content of economics and related research in accountancy and business studies? The financial sector. As the financier-turned-reformer Philip Augar has pointed out over the last thirty years ‘finance wrapped its tentacles around the relevant parts of the academic world … under these circumstances it is little wonder that so much academic research was supportive of the financial system’.

So academics supported the financial system and the consequences were disastrous – for the discipline, but, more importantly, for the wider society. Most academic economists had no idea that there was trouble ahead. In the words of Joseph Stiglitz – Nobel Prize-winner in, anyone? – in economics, that’s right –

‘If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause of great concern’.

Given the performance of the economists it is not clear that the discipline qualifies as a science at all. It is as though physicists spent ages pushing an elephant up the stairs of the physics department and then expressed surprise at what happened when they heaved it off the roof.

I show in my book how powerful interests in the conjoined worlds of finance and the media treated economists as resources that they could commission and publicize at will. Economists could be hired to write research papers that served the financial interest – much as one might hail a cab.

This has been going on for a long time, too. Private foundations established by industrialists have to a considerable extent shaped academic disciplines and allocated prestige within and between them. In the 1920s and 1930s the Rockefeller foundations funded the United States Social Science Research Council and exercised enormous but largely invisible influence over the development of economics, psychology and sociology. They worked extensively in Britain as well as the United States – helping to found both the LSE and the University of Chicago.

In 1928 Harold Laski complained that:

‘It is merely the fact that a fund is in reach which permeates everything. The college develops along the lines the foundation approves. The dependence is merely implicit, but it is in fact quite final.’

The impact of the foundations was particularly profound in the study of communications. The idea of communication as a process of mutual exchange and transformation in a conversation conducted by equals gave way to a transitive model, in which active and qualified experts adjusted the beliefs of passive audiences. The often-infuriating self-confidence of journalists and broadcasters has something to do with shrewd investments by these grant-giving funds.

It is important to recognize that the patterns of support for research in social science reflect the desire of existing elites to maintain and extend their power. This kind of patronage is not disinterested. As Edmund Day one of the directors of the Rockefeller Foundations, put it ‘the validation of the findings of social science must be through effective social control’. Let’s think about that for a second:

‘The validation of the findings of social science must be through effective social control.’

In Day’s universe social science doesn’t establish itself as a science through accurate descriptions of the social world, or through its predictive power. It is validated by what it offers the powerful – effective social control.

Social science matters a great deal. But it is as nothing compared with the power of the natural sciences to shape our world. As Harvey Brooks, a luminary in the liberal administration of science in the United States the 1960s, explained the 2 per cent of GDP the government spent on scientific research and development has ‘disproportionate social and economic leverage, since the whole thrust of the economy is determined by scientific and technical research’. Let’s think about that for a second.

‘The whole thrust of the economy is determined by scientific and technical research.’

State support for science has been the dominant factor in determining patterns of investment in research. From ipods, to surveillance technology, from the internet to the state of the art in modern derivatives trading – the state as patron has been godfather to much of what is distinctive about our time. Try to imagine the media and entertainment business without computers. Try to imagine a globalized system of offshore finance without modern communications.

Successive American administrations have channeled funds to basic science, as well as to technologies drawn from that science, to ensure that the state continues to have access to war-winning technology. Accordingly, the federal government provides most of the funding for basic science research in American universities. For example, four government agencies, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and NASA support most of the research in physics. In 2004 the Department of Defense directly controlled around half of all state funding for scientific research and development, a staggering $62.8 billion

The distinction between military and civilian funds is more apparent than real; the National Science Technology Council works to ‘orient science and technology toward achieving national goals’. The council’s members include the Secretary of Defense and the heads of NASA, the CIA and the National Institutes of Health. Though money may come from the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy, they will have conferred with the military and intelligence agencies on the broad objectives of science research before final decisions are made. The population as a whole has no direct access to the debate about what constitute ‘national goals’. The heads of the military-industrial bureaucracy are left to decide, in meetings that are either secret or largely ignored by the media.

The largest scientific establishment in the world – an establishment with an almost unimaginable power to do good – currently operates as an arms-length subsidiary of the United States military. Science operates with what the CIA used to call plausible deniability.

In Britain the sums spent directly by the state are smaller but still highly significant. In total the UK military directly controls around 30 percent of the state’s budget for research and development – around £2.7 billion. Areas like cognitive neuro-science, for example, have received vital support from the military.

And the UK state subsidizes science in other, less direct ways. For example, the NHS allows drug companies to factor in a research and development premium into the cost of patented drugs. This money provided a subsidy of somewhere between £2 and £3 billion a year in the years after 2004. This is significantly more that the UK government itself spends on health research.

The research agenda of scientist in Britain and the America is dominated by state and corporate interests. In particular pharmaceuticals companies, technology companies, and the finance sector. What do they do with their power to direct science? They strengthen their position.

They promote business consolidation and financialization; they increase the ability of the state to project power overseas; they seek to control the material and ideological resources of the world to the fullest possible extent. And the universities are the most important single venue for this work.

Those involved in the management of science, as well as many working scientists, insist on its disinterested nature. But science is not and can never be disinterested in so far as its objectives are concerned. The decision to distribute funds in particular fields of study can never be a purely technical matter. Scientific assessments of what is likely to produce interesting or practical knowledge are inevitably alloyed with the desires of those who control the system to develop particular forms of knowledge and with them new resources of power. At present the military and intelligence institutions of the state and a sophisticated fraction of the corporate sector largely determine the development paths of both basic science and advanced technology.

So, scientists conduct their work in partnership with state and corporate interests. Public relations experts try to convince them that their service is perfect freedom and that, besides, no alternative funding model is possible since the population is childishly fearful of change. We are, in the minds of many scientists an angry mob waiting to happen – armed with pitchforks and torches, hammering at the lab door.

This is not true.  Though we are constantly told that the public is irrationally afraid of change – that we are too risk averse, that we can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions about scientific matters, this seems to me to be all so much dogma. The current system wastes prodigious amounts of public money outright and spends even more on projects that cannot be justified in terms of the public interest. A democratic system for supporting research could hardly be more inept than the system we currently have.

A response to the current government’s efforts to marketize education must, it seems to me, include an alternative to elite control of the research agenda. There is no reason why the funding process for social, human and physical science could not be made subject to democratic decision-making.

In the current system non-experts already determine what scientists study. But they are non-experts with privileged positions in the state and the private economy.

We could very easily create funding institutions that allocated resources to scientists on the basis of a democratic vote. Social and natural scientists could make funding applications to these institutions and we could all have a say in what is given material support. The few economists that predicted the financial crash could gain greater access to publicity as well as more research resources.

Scientists who wanted to develop technologies to head off environmental catastrophe would be able to appeal to a funding body that was not already captured by interests that are determined above all to preserve and extend their own power. At the moment decision-making in the state is integrated with the perceived needs of Shell and BP. Can we really expect a vigorous program of research into energy that will be cheap enough to replace fossil fuel if we leave it to the deliberations of what Walter Lippmann called ‘men on the inside, working under conditions that are sound’.

As I said earlier we currently give between £2 and £3 billion a year to the pharmaceutical sector in this country. They spend this in pretty much unaccountable ways – unraveling research and development and marketing in the accounts of multinational companies is not a straightforward matter.

Their record for innovation in recent years has not been good. Their few successes have relied heavily on research conducted by the state. For the most part they have concentrated on finding molecular tweaks that will extend patents or allow them to produce me-too or copycat drugs. Psychiatric drugs are a dubious way of treating distress when its social causes are so glaring – and when the claims made for Prozac and the rest seem increasingly unreliable. Some people like to joke that if the public were able to  control the scientific agenda every penny would be spent on cancer research. I think they are wrong. But the joke is that most of the money the taxpayer provides for medical research ends up being spent on research into pattern baldness, obesity, sexual dysfunction, and on developing psychiatric drugs that don’t work. This doesn’t seem to me to be a sensible use of public money.

We could take this subsidy away from Big Pharma and use it to fund publicly accountable and democratic funding institutions in each English region and in each devolved nation. Some of the projects will seem frivolous or wrong-headed. Some of them will actually be frivolous or wrong-headed. But some of them won’t.

As the general population takes direct control of more funds, it can use research into social and physical reality as the basis for investments in new technologies and new experiments in living. Social and economic organization should be determined in the light of publicly mandated research – it should not emerge from the deliberations of the creepier elements in the state, corporate and scientific establishments.

Harvey Brooks was right. The money spent by the state on science determines the whole thrust of the economy – you don’t have to be a doctrinaire Marxist to recognize that where the economy leads, society follows. If we don’t want to live our lives in a world of steepening inequality, conflict and environmental degradation, we need to take responsibility for the ways in which that money is spent. The universities have played a key role in incubating the current crises that you now inherit. They can play a key role in furnishing a solution.

As you think about strategy and tactics now and in the months and years ahead – think carefully about the power that resides in the scientific and technical base. Think about how it might be liberated by democratic decision-making about its objectives.

Many of you are members of an elite institution. You will have opportunities to drop your youthful idealism and take up positions in the existing structures of power. So it is easy for those who oppose you to paint you as self-indulgent and self-interested.

But I believe that something is happening in Britain that is long overdue, and you are at the forefront of it. There is widespread anger about the manifest injustice of a government bailing out banks and cutting vital public expenditures on education. There is something like disgust about the use of an economic crisis as a cover for further privatization of the National Health Service.

So as you reach out to others – to trade unionists, to healthcare professionals, to environmental and human rights campaigners, to those who want a different future from the one mapped out for us – you will succeed in securing your own interests to the extent that you can show that a system in which knowledge is set free is a system where knowledge can finally serve the interests of us all.

Why should we settle for a strategy of resistance to a shallow and duplicitous Coalition? The crisis is theirs – they are part of a political culture of elite control that has had a generation to succeed and has unambiguously failed. Though they have only just arrived in government their time has already past. It is up to us – to you – to set out the program that will address our deep social, economic, and environmental deficits. And the liberation of knowledge will be key to the success of that program.

To turn education into a commodity is to bind it even more tightly to the values and the interests that have caused so much havoc in recent years. To set knowledge free is to begin to repair the damage. I wish you well in your campaign and I hope that it will form part of a wider movement to make another world possible.

Thank you very much.

(This talk is based on chapter 11 of The Return of the Public)


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