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Archive for July 3rd, 2010

I recently came across a quotation from Marxist historian JD Bernal‘s 1939 work, The Social Function of Science, which is often regarded as  one of the earliest works in the field of the sociology of science.

We now see that though capitalism was essential to the early development of science, giving it, for the first time, a practical value, the human importance transcends in every way that of capitalism, and, indeed, the full development of science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.

Bernal was interested not only in science, but also on the impact of science on the world, and the relationship between industry and scientific research. I think these questions are important for scientists (both natural and social) to continue to ask. Today, the pharmaceutical industry is a clear example; the drugs that are researched and developed will be those that will be able to provide the highest returns, meaning that they treat people with money, even if there are other drugs that could improve more lives and to a greater degree in the third world.

And this is also related to the production of economic knowledge. As the American university becomes more of an embodiment of capitalism, the type of economic knowledge produced will tend to serve the interests of capitalists. Economic theories that challenge that status quo have struggled to find acceptance in universities, and the effects are obvious in policy realm as well. The financial bailouts and other policies of the Fed and Treasury are backed by neoclassical theory; certainly an economic theory emphasized the poor would prescribe very different policies.

As universities become more capitalist, they will seek to eliminate theories that challenge them. These changes will then undermine the university’s ability to understand and serve the poor in our society. Hence there does seem to be continued relevance of Bernal’s claim that “science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism.”

[The above structure of Photosystem I, from Petra Fromme’s lab at ASU, was determined using X-ray crystallography, a technique pioneered by Bernal]

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