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Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science

About the author
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a cultural historian and media scholar. In addition to his openDemocracy column, his work has been published in American Scholar, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prestigious journals.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming The Anarchist in the Library and a true scholar of the internet age, presents a compelling, five-part panorama of the implications of electronic peer-to-peer networks for culture, science, security, and globalisation. His provocative argument registers peer-to-peer as a key site of contest over freedom and control of information.

Part 1: It’s a peer-to-peer world
In the first of his five-part series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps the fluid new territory of electronic peer-to-peer networks that are transforming the information ecosystem. Is this a landscape of enlarging freedoms where citizens shape the forms and meanings of social communication, or does it offer an invitation to entrenching state surveillance and closure?

Part 2: ‘Pro-gumbo’: culture as anarchy
Peer-to-peer technologies have precedents in the anarchistic and hybrid processes by which cultures have always been formed. Decoding anxious cultural preservationists from Matthew Arnold to Samuel Huntington, the second instalment of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s five-part series reframes p2p in the light of other technologies and practices – cassettes, creolisation, world music – which likewise reveal the energetic promiscuity of culture. Any attempt to censor or limit this flow would leave cultures stagnant.

Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science
Science is knowledge in pursuit of truth that can expand human betterment. But part three of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s powerful series sees the free information flows at the heart of science being pressured by the copyright economy, the post-9/11 security environment, proprietary capture of genetic databases, and science policies of governments and universities. If commerce and control defeat openness and accumulation, what happens to science impacts on democracy itself.

Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
In the last decade, the nation-state has survived three challenges to its hegemony – from the Washington Consensus, the California Ideology, and Anarchy. The promise of a borderless globalisation unified by markets and new technology has been buried. The fourth part of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s compelling series asks: what then remains of the utopian vision of global peer-to-peer networks that would bypass traditional structures of power?

Part 5: Networks of power and freedom
The use by non-state networks of new communication technologies is challenging ideas about citizenship, security, and the nation-state. In response, the impulse to restrict or suppress is shared by states as different as the United States and the People’s Republic of China. In concluding his five-part openDemocracy series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps an issue that will define the landscape of 21st century politics.

Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science

During the cold war, scientists behind the ‘iron curtain’ yearned for life in the United States. Not only were basic needs and conveniences better met in the ‘free world’, the principles of open dialogue and frank examination created fulfilling intellectual communities. Because Soviet scientists were among the few citizens allowed to travel frequently to Western Europe, North America, and India, they were among the first to see through the lies and exaggeration of Soviet tyranny.

In early 2001 Russian scientist Elena Bonner gave a speech about the recent lurch back toward authoritarianism in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. In the speech, she pointed out that if not for Soviet scientists in the 1960s, anti-Soviet dissidents would not have had a sense of the shell of lies in which the government had encased Soviet society. Soviet scientists had communicated with the outside world. They had the power to let a little light and a little air into an otherwise blind and suffocating nation.

Science is the most successful, open and distributed communicative system human beings have ever created and maintained. The cultural norms of science, and by extension academia in general, are anarchistic in the best sense of the word. Science and academia should be radically democratic. Although membership in these communities is effectively closed to a select few, the papers and books that come out of these communities are more often than not open to public perusal and commentary. And the traditions of blind peer-review do allow for motivated amateurs to participate occasionally in discourse and discovery, even if they can’t get past the guards protecting labs and libraries.

Science is a culture. It’s also a method. And it’s an ideology that supports the method and maintains the culture. But it’s also an industry (or set of industries) through which billions of public and private dollars flow every year. The stakes of science have never been higher nor its justifications clearer. The second world war, we are told, was won because one side had a group of well-funded immigrant scientists who developed better radar than the other side did. And, ultimately, it developed a better bomb as well. The challenges of the 21st century – poverty, security, and disease -- can all be addressed with advances that start in the laboratory or computer and flow out to the market, the farm, the school, or the clinic.

The great river of science…

Scientific knowledge often moves from a spring of open discourse into a stream of adoption and exploitation. The stream often moves from the public arena to the private sector. We have developed complex rules that guide this process. And each step embodies a tangle of values and ideologies. The rules and terms of discussion evolve from consensus-seeking processes within scientific communities. They then consider the demands of market forces to create and enforce scarcity and state demands for security.

Different ideologies, habits, and rules govern the “upstream” source of knowledge and the “downstream” deployment of it. But the first step, the action in the lab and the library, depends very much on the academic devotion to radical democracy and openness. The essential question in this matrix of rules and norms is this: at what point in the knowledge stream should we install controls and restrict access to generate incentives and protect people from bad actors who would exploit dangerous knowledge?

…and its dams

Within scientific communities, of course, members face significant real-world barriers to true and ideal openness and equality. The first is the relatively soft barrier of expertise. The rare amateur in theoretical physics must spend years mastering the body of work that preceded her or his curiosity. Without such mastery and the luxury of the time spent pursuing it, a potential contributor would not know where the gaps in knowledge lay or which questions are particularly interesting.

Such time-intensive immersion, of course, would prevent someone from pursuing work that would pay the rent. So while scientific discourse is open to experts only, becoming an expert demands such an investment of time and money that it tempers the potential excesses of information anarchy: the persistence of rumour and error, and the cult of personality.

The second, harder barrier is one of credentials. In a messy, crowded, busy world, degrees and titles serve as imperfect proxies for knowledge and connections. You might not know whether it is worth your time listening to a dissertation on the virtues of genetic engineering given by the person seated next to you on the train. But if she introduces herself as a professor of molecular biology at Rockefeller University, you might decide to listen.

Of course, ‘credentialism’ is inherently oligarchic. Admission to the academy of credentials is severely restricted, as its members prefer to limit competition for jobs and resources. Credentialism can be self-fulfilling. A board of credentialed experts reviewing grant applications is likely to dismiss applicants who lack the same basic credentials they have earned and reward those who went to the right schools, regardless of more subtle measures of knowledge or expertise.

Credentialism embodies all the potential excesses of oligarchy. That professor on the train could be full of crap, as many professors generally are. Even very bright, educated, licensed professionals can be wrong. The chief problem with credentialism comes from the synergy of status anxiety and arrogance: such professionals might be less willing to admit error than an amateur or novice might. Fortunately for scientific progress, any group of credentialed experts is likely to contain significant disagreement on the burning questions of the day.

So credentialism trumps credentialism and real debate can occur. It’s impossible to know which conversations and debates don’t happen because of the inherent conservativism of communities of the credentialed. Despite some elements of oligarchy, science as a practice succeeds because of, not despite, its ideology of relative openness. Credentialism is more an imperfection rather than a corruption of science.

A community of amateurs

Science, as an ideology and culture, is supposed to be open to contributions from the non-licensed. Unlike the humanities, where credentialism is a much bigger problem and necessity, science can be somewhat free from the tyranny of credentials. It’s supposed to be disinterested in questions of nationalism or commercial gain.

While the public hails legends like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who have broken open scientific fields and rewritten textbooks, the truth about science is that it is most often done within and among teams of researchers, collaborating among even larger communities across borders and oceans. Science has always been global, cosmopolitan, messy, inefficient, and troublesome. And with the rise of global communicative technologies and more sophisticated methods of computer modeling within areas as diverse as cell biology and nuclear physics, the barriers of entry should be lower than ever and collaboration and criticism should be easier and cheaper than ever.

Significantly, one community of researchers and creators – the Open Source or Free Software movement, has adopted radically democratic academic principles to its guiding philosophy. While professional and degreed computer scientists make significant and notable contributions to the evolution of free software, the amateur matters greatly. It’s more often the community of amateurs that de-bugs and improves a piece of code, or finds a new way of using it in the new context.

Computer science is new enough and its tools are cheap enough that thousands of amateurs who lack credentials are able to gain expertise through trial, error, experimentation, collaboration, and communication. It’s the ideal scientific community, one Francis Bacon would have envied and Aristotle could not have even imagined. And recently it has emerged as a place-holding metaphor for values and habits that have much older currency in the sciences. Open source has become a model and an argument, yet its principles used to be unarticulated because they were the default within science.

As in so many other areas of life – from music to political action – just as communicative technology has allowed the flowering of a new scientific revolution, the oligarchic concerns of commerce and national security have crowded out these democratic values at their sources – the university and laboratory.

Government against enlightenment

Now, more than a decade after Elena Bonner and her husband Andrei Sakharov helped end the cold war, we must start questioning how much of a scientific haven United States will be in the future. Citing legal threats against encryption researchers and the criminal prosecution of Russian computer scientist Dmitry Sklyarov and nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and increasingly strict visa restrictions governing students and researchers, many scientist and mathematicians have been frightened away from traveling to or working in the United States.

And scientists are finding it harder to do their jobs in the new security environment since 11 September 2001 and the still-mysterious anthrax attacks that quickly followed. Over the past two years, the US government has severed important links on federal World Wide Web sites, deleted information from other government websites, and even required librarians to destroy a CD-ROM on public water supplies. University of Michigan researchers lost access to an Environmental Protection Agency database with information they were using to study hazardous waste facilities. Unclassified technical reports have disappeared from the Los Alamos National Laboratory website.

Rules regulating the use of dangerous materials or the distribution of information potentially open to abuse traditionally evolve slowly through the scientific process. Groups of scientists, in concert with government officials, will examine risks and propose restrictive protocols. Some are encoded in law. Others remain part of the self-regulating culture of science. But since 2001, the US government has taken to dictating the new security rules, regardless of the scientific merit of the restrictions.

Many of these rules have generated criticism among scientists who fear a chill on certain essential research (on bioterrorism, for instance) and on the review process that requires other researchers to replicate previous experiments. If some data or conclusions are kept secret, then science cannot proceed in a self-correcting fashion.

Most alarming, the US government has decided to restrict and monitor contacts with non-US scientists and graduate students. The global, cosmopolitan nature of science is at stake if the world’s largest source of basic research explicitly favors its own citizens instead of letting the best American scientists collaborate with the best non-American scientists (see Peg Brickley, “New antiterrorism tenets trouble scientists”, The Scientist, 28 October 2002).

Yet even before the attacks of 2001, something serious was changing in the relationship between science and the United States government. Since the early 1980s, increasing emphasis on the potential profitability of publicly funded basic research and concern for the perceived security risks that open networks, open journals, and open discussion afford have pushed scientists to re-assert their principles and defend their peers.

There have been battles over the content of journal articles, the control that journal publishers exercise over material, the role of foreign-born and ethnically suspect scientists, and the ethics of privatising basic information about the world and the human body. In other words, scientists are having to argue for the enlightenment all over again.

The copyright economy: commerce and control

As molecular biologist Roger Tatoud has written, “It is widely accepted that science should be an open field of knowledge and that communication between scientists is crucial to its progress. In practice, however, everything seems to be done to restrict access to scientific information and to promote commercial profit over intellectual benefits.”

Tatoud is most concerned with the increasing influence of two systems of regulation on the culture of science: copyrights and patents. Copyrights directly affect the price of scientific journals and thus their availability to researchers in developing nations, at poorer institutions, or those unaffiliated with a company or university.

The absurd copyright economy forces scientists to assign all rights to a major commercial journal publisher for no remuneration, then buy back the work through monopolistic subscriptions. As a result, many scientists are forming free and open collaborations to distribute peer-reviewed scientific literature outside the traditional commercial journal system.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is sponsoring the “public library of science” and the George Soros’ foundation funds the Budapest Open Access Initiative. The website for the Budapest project declares:

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

While the copyright system benefits the publishing oligarchs at the expense of scientific openness, it has not had nearly the restrictive effects that the patent system has had on science. Since 1980, when the United States Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which encourages universities to patent work generated with public funds, and the US Patent Office approved the patenting of living things and the genes that operate in them, there has been a mad rush to control information that might be medically relevant.

An American company, Myriad Genetics Inc., that has managed to wrest control of two mutant genes that influence breast cancer in a small number of women has been able to reap immense monopoly rents from medical care providers who must pay the company $2,500 each time they screen a woman for these mutations.

As British biologist John Sulston has written, “By claiming proprietary rights to the diagnostic tests for the two BRCA genes and charging for the tests Myriad is adding to total health-care costs. Even worse, once scientists really understand how the BRCA 1 and 2 mutations cause tumors to grow, they might be able to devise new therapies. But because of these patents, Myriad has exclusive marketing rights.”

In other words, researchers have a financial disincentive to act as free agents when developing new tests and therapies for these mutations. And throughout the world, these tests remain beyond the financial reach of billions of women (see also Sultston's ‘the heritage of humanity’).

The privatisation of science

While favouring centralised information control and efficient short-term commercial gain over openness and the long-term accumulation of knowledge is the major theme of this story, it’s not the only one. In fact, in many of the battles between openness and control of processes and information, over-control has had a perverse effect on commerce.

Proprietary control of databases of essential genetic information, for instance, raised the specter of redundant, imperfect, competitive private databases that would simultaneously lower the profits for companies that maintain them and raise transaction costs for companies that wish to use the information to develop drugs or therapies.

For this reason, several pharmaceutical companies have joined with the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom to form a free, public database for SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), the markers of difference among individuals who share a genome. By identifying the location of SNPs, researchers can pinpoint factors that might signal susceptibility to specific diseases that have genetic influences.

Before the public SNP database obviated the “gold rush” to identify and patent hundreds of SNPs, lone companies were trying to hoard the information and patent the SNPs. Had they succeeded, research on particular SNPs would have been more expensive and potentially monopolistic. So the public SNP database is an example of companies heavily invested in a healthy and reliable patent system overtly avoiding the abuse of the system and investing in public domain information. They realised that too much control was bad for business.

The United States government had nothing to do with the open public database, besides funding some of the research on SNPs. US science policies heavily encourage universities, public sector researchers, and private companies to file for patent protection on every step of the knowledge-producing process, upstream and downstream. These policies have generated an exponential increase in the number of patents owned by universities for work done with public funds.

In 1979 American universities received 264 patents. By 1997, that number had increased tenfold, to 2,436. In that same time, the total number of US patents issues per year only doubled. US science policies have also erased any functional difference in the ways universities regulate and license basic science and commercially exploitable technology. Perhaps most importantly, the American people are paying at least twice for any research that generates a marketable technology or treatment – through the grant and through the market price of the procedure or drug).

What if during the second world war the United States had considered scientists of German, Italian, or even Danish descent too suspicious or untrustworthy to be involved in code-breaking, radar development, or weapons research? What if during the cold war the United States had restricted – instead of encouraging – scientific communication between its scientists and those behind the iron curtain? What if Leibniz had had to ask Newton for permission to work on the calculus?


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