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Bernie Needs a Radical Science Policy

Science can be a liberatory force that frees people from drudgery and fosters human freedom and flourishing. But to unleash that potential, we need a radical new science policy that promotes human needs over corporate profits.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign event on February 10, 2020 in Durham, New Hampshire. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

As progressive scientists we are excited by Bernie Sanders’s proposals for Medicare for All, free college, and a Green New Deal. These policies represent a radical break with the status quo. In our role as scientists, we are also acutely aware of the dangers posed by the Trump presidency. His blatant disregard for scientific facts and his attacks on the scientific community threaten to undermine years of research. A Bernie presidency would be a dramatic repudiation of Trump.

Yet in stark contrast with transformative proposals such as the Green New Deal, Bernie’s science talking points — increasing stem cell research and vaccination, embracing the scientific consensus on climate change, and using scientific thinking to guide policy — are surprisingly anodyne and almost indistinguishable from any other mainstream Democratic politician.

One of the core messages of the Sanders campaign is that the struggle to create a more just society must be driven by “us,” not Bernie. Achieving the kind of large-scale changes that the presidential hopeful is fighting for — overhauling health care, education, and the economy — requires us, as scientists, to push the conversation beyond these standard talking points and imagine a different kind of science geared toward human needs. We need a bold new science policy.

Scientific research and technological development are central to the modern economy. The fruits of scientific labor are everywhere, from cutting-edge cancer drugs to the internet and smartphones. Scientific progress has reshaped our lives, in many ways for the better. Yet current science policy and practices in the United States often undermine the liberatory potential of scientific inquiry.

The problem is threefold. First, the current model of science overwhelmingly directs scientific resources towards military interests and applications. Military spending accounts for nearly half of the federal government’s science-related outlays ($70 billion out of a total of $147 billion dollars in 2018), with more than $50 billion a year going directly to weapons development. By contrast, the total amount allocated for basic research in 2018 across all scientific fields (physics, biology, ecology, material science, computer science, chemistry, engineering, etc.) was just under $37 billion.

Second, the current organization of science alienates scientists from their own labor. Like other workers throughout society, scientists, especially junior scientists and trainees, are often intensely exploited. Many junior scientists work in low-paid, precarious postdoctoral positions well into their thirties, competing for a diminishing number of permanent positions at research universities — a structure encouraged and reinforced by the current science funding model.

At the same time, the scientific workforce suffers from an egregious lack of diversity. The organization of scientific education creates tremendous obstacles for working-class students and students from marginalized groups hoping to become professional scientists. This loss of scientific minds deprives society of new discoveries and insights. And given the premium placed on scientific skills in the modern labor market, the lack of diversity also fortifies existing disparities and helps reproduce entrenched social hierarchies.

The third problem stems from how contemporary science policy privatizes publicly funded science. Scientific funding is disproportionately directed toward subsidizing the profits of private corporations, with nearly twice as much money given to industry ($55 billion in 2017) as to universities ($30.7 billion in 2017).

Even for academic research, statutes like the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act encourage universities to patent the results of publicly funded research and then license these innovations to for-profit private companies. In short, scientific knowledge, discovered collectively by the scientific community and often paid for by the public, is privatized and commoditized, with dire consequences. As the late Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard insisted: “when technology is harnessed to yield profits for the few rather than to improve the lives of most people, science and its technological products undermine rather than enhance our lives.”

We see the effects of this contradiction in every sector of society. Scientific advances make it possible to automate menial tasks, but the undemocratic appropriation of this knowledge by business owners means that the primary effect of automation is greater profits rather than more leisure time for workers.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, building on publicly funded basic research, maintain high profit margins while overall life expectancy decreases and millions of people lack access to basic lifesaving drugs.

And even as climate science reveals a looming global catastrophe, science and technology are appropriated and deployed by corporations and governments in ways that exacerbate and hasten the disaster. Advances in automobile engineering and energy-efficient design are used to produce newer and bigger SUVs. Improvements in sensors and GPS technology form the technological basis of the modern fracking boom.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has created a political opening for scientists and others to transform the way science is organized. To do so, we need a bold new science policy geared toward meeting social needs rather than the priorities of the military and large corporations.

An important first step is to redirect the nearly 50 percent of science funding that currently comes from military agencies to other institutions such as the National Science Foundation. This would allow us tackle pressing social problems like climate change and antibiotic resistance, rather than giving precedence to military concerns like weapons development.

Another priority is to boost investment in scientific education — especially for groups that are underrepresented in the field — and, as part of this, to reorganize scientific training so that the rights of scientific workers are respected, including the right to a living wage, shorter working hours, comprehensive health care, and protections against harassment and discrimination by their supervisors.

At the same time, we must also invest more in basic research and democratize scientific priorities so that they reflect the needs of all people, especially marginalized groups that have traditionally been neglected by the scientific enterprise. A major global health crisis facing the world today is the rise of antibiotic resistance. Low- and middle-income countries, which bear the greatest burden of infectious disease and limited health care infrastructure, are among those that will be most affected. Yet research in this area is underfunded because antibiotics are not profitable. More generally, research in areas such as public health and regulatory science receive a pittance. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget is a measly 0.8 percent of the federal science budget — nearly six time less than that allocated to weapons development. This is especially troubling because poor communities disproportionately suffer the consequences of pollution and environmental contamination.

Finally, scientists should push to replace laws like the Bayh-Dole Act, which privatize publicly produced knowledge, with new legislation that creates a “scientific commons.” To facilitate this, we should insist on the need for new government-funded, nonprofit institutions that can translate basic research directly into usable goods such as lifesaving drugs, bypassing the price-gouging of Big Pharma and biotech.

As Bernie emphasizes, the task of following through on these transformative goals falls on all of us. We, along with many other scientists, have formed a new organization — Scientists for Bernie — to support Sanders’s vision for a more just society and, more importantly, to begin building and fighting for a science policy that benefits all people.

Science can be an emancipatory force, reducing drudgery while fostering human freedom and flourishing. But in order to unleash that potential, scientists will need to become active participants in political struggle to create the world we want.