13 Feb 2009
February 13, 2009

Heading for Disaster

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Science and the research profession in a crisis-ridden global world, par Frederico G. Carvalho, OTC – Organização dos Trabalhadores Científicos, Lisboa, Portugal

From the point of view of transnational corporations and the existing financial capital superstructure, the main argument for investing in S&T is the need to “remain competitive in global terms”.

“Europe is at a crossroads” they say: a sad reflection of a parochial and shortsighted view of reality concerned primarily with “competitiveness” and endless “economic growth”

In fact it is the world itself that is at a crossroads. Building up a sustainable future with a socially acceptable quality of life requires substituting co-operation for competition at the global level.

We are witnessing the bust phase of a giant financial bubble and its ongoing repercussions on the world economy with tragic consequences for the everyday life of millions of people. But in reality “our risks go far beyond finance. Our reckless gambles on the (…) financial bubble are dwarfed by the long-term gambles we have taken trough failure to address the interconnected crises of water, energy, poverty, food and climate change.” It is imperative to move fast in the right direction for creating the conditions for sustainability — hopefully with respect for the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights.

To achieve this goal deep structural changes on the way society is organized are needed. Changes so deep that may well be deemed revolutionary. There is a growing social conscience that the blind pursuit of the goals of the profit driven so-called “free market economy” — in fact inseparable from the relentless exploitation of Earth’s human and physical resources — is responsible for increasing inequalities and the present social and economic crises. Persevering along the same track is bound to lead to chaos, violence and war.

Time is getting short to change course. We don’t need competition but co-operation. And globally we don’t need growth but a phase of degrowth for a period long enough to reach a stationary state as far as the availability of natural resources is concerned. The question is whether it is possible to “achieve such a degrowth without social and political disasters.”

Science has a decisive role to play in this context. Broadly speaking, however, science and scientific workers are held hostage by the powerful economic interests that control governments and restrain the capacity of autonomous decision of nation-states. It is appropriate to quote here the Declaration of the French Association Science, Technology, Society, of December last, that claims that “research policy concerns all citizens. Science and Technology are society’s concern.” And it goes on to say that “the purpose of research is not primarily that assigned to it by the European Treaties, namely to provide the basis of economic competitiveness” (end of quote).

Building up a Science basis to meet the challenges that stand before mankind

To meet the enormous challenges that stand before us “a robust academic environment” and “a clear and consistent long term government policy” are required. A science policy effectively concerned with the common good of society cannot be implemented in the absence of a strong public sector capable of intervening in strategic areas of social life.

A strong public sector, however, is hardly compatible with the campaign of systematic denigration of the concept of “career” and “jobs for life” mounted by governments that favour liberal policies to weaken citizen’s opposition to the ongoing process of pauperisation of public services in favour of private enterprise.

The practices of most governments around the world do not match the present and future challenges faced by human societies. Often they do not conform even with their own discourse about those challenges.

Once we agree that “Science and Technology are society’s concern” and that “research policy concerns all citizens” we shall agree to the importance of promoting the scientific culture of the masses as a decisive tool for shaping the future. This goes naturally hand in hand with the universal expansion of school systems, education for all and effective improvement of mass literacy with particular emphasis on the teaching of science and the assimilation of the scientific method.

It is indispensable to increase the absolute number and improve the qualification of human resources in R&D activities. This requires creating an environment that promotes the attractiveness of scientific careers and the recognition of the research profession as such, implying employment stability, career development opportunities and social rights in the framework of an adequate labour legislation. The possibility of carrying out free fundamental research in every field of knowledge must be guaranteed combating the present tendency to make it more and more difficult to meet the requisites both material and immaterial for a fruitful work.

Although salaries are one of the material requisites we have in mind moral incentives can be as important as salaries. Also, comparing salaries is not always straightforward especially when one is dealing with different systems or parts of the world where conditions are quite different. Purchase Power Standards currently used as conversion factors have their limitations mainly where free public sector services play an important role.

Besides free fundamental research we need targeted research both fundamental, oriented and applied as well as experimental development required for innovation. Targets of R&D work should be set according to society needs which are not necessarily coincident with corporate needs. One recent example is that of the announced suppression by Pfizer — the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company —of 800 research positions in a move “to rationalize the company’s portfolio towards those areas that will have the greatest value and return”.

Questioning society’s superstructure

Which road to follow out of the crossroads? The question of the form of government is surfacing here and there in published opinion.

In the April 2008 issue of Research*eu, the European Union’s research magazine we can read that “(…) perhaps, by their very nature, our democracies take too short-term a view to grasp such long-term introduction of coherent measures.”

And how far is “democratic” a fitting qualifier of “our democracies”?

David Strahan, consultant for the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC), cited in the same issue of “Research*eu” judges that: “From the macroeconomic standpoint, (…) peak oil is (not) beneficial for the democratic system. In fact the democratic system is a poor framework for the changes needed to counter the effects of this crisis (…)”. (pause)

The future is open. It is up to us, collectively, to shape it.

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