June 4, 2009
In Science, there is no priority among subjects. If there are priorities, they come from political choices. Science does not dictate a priori which fields deserve our investments.
Military scientific research, aeronautic, space, nuclear, biotechnology, and nano-science programmes absorb an important portion of public spending on research in the countries of the European Union. Research in most key domains of sustainable development and public health such as agro-ecology, organic farming, solar and wind energy, eco-construction or industrial ecology, preventative health care, toxicology, and epidemiology remain in the margins.
Under-Developed Lines of Research
The gaps in research in the key fields for sustainable development are due to insufficient regulation in the production of knowledge. This regulation currently comes in three main forms: self-regulation by researchers, polarization by industrial demand, and the knowledge of political decision makers in a model where science finds its principal interest to be participating in competitiveness.
Self-regulation by researchers, if this is an essential dimension for the autonomy of public research, shows itself to be overly sensitive to the hegemonic by-products of academic and “disciplinist” powers. Regulation by the market, accented by government policies, has its limits. In fact, this regulation directs research towards the invention of commercial technologies with short-term profitability for private firms. The consequence: certain lines of research are under-developed. In keeping with this arrangement, we have more interest in selling techniques to clean up pollution than to systematically remove it, to sell medicines to cure victims rather than to prevent illness related to environment hazards, to monopolize patents on research before knowledge can be pooled as one of humanity’s common goods.
As a consequence, the evaluation of the performance of laboratories and researchers is taking place more and more in terms of scientific competition and market valuation ( the race for patents and contracts). This system ignores the non-market needs of the planet and our societies.
Decisions Taken in Very Closed Circles
Decision-making processes establish research priorities, manage research institutions, evaluate their performance according their contributions to the creation of knowledge, economic growth and responsiveness to social needs. Decisions about research budgets and on the types of research to be undertaken are made in closed circles of “experts.” – consisting of scientists from the “establishment,” representatives of big companies and government officials. Associations – consumers, ecologists and other users of research – and young researchers are excluded from the pilot projects of government agencies, universities, and research organizations.
- Dedicate a fifth of national research budgets to projects of real interest to citizens who finance this research with their taxes.
- Make a massive investment in public research and higher education in fields linked to the environment and ecology, sustainable development, public and environmental health, and the evaluation of technological choices. For example: dedicate 20% of the biomedical research budget to environmental health (toxicology, curatorial studies, primary prevention, epidemiology). Dedicate a third of public food and agriculture research budgets to sustainable agriculture, the reduction of and search for alternatives to GMOs, and in particular into organic agriculture.
- Open pilot projects and the governance of university research organizations to the not-for-profit civil sector and to those working for ecological issues. Notably, this should include consumer and environmental associations. It is about re-opening free spaces to researchers who are currently imprisoned by exclusive partnerships with industry. This would even the power struggle through the introduction of a third way.
- Develop financial devices to reinforce participatory research such as the Partnership between Institutions and Citizens for Research and Innovation in Ile-de- France (PICRI).
- Create national agencies for civic research that will have access to 5% of the national budget for public research.
- Take ecological criteria into account for all industrial innovation policy.
- Reform the support mechanisms (eg. Research and development tax credits) to industrial innovation in the direction of environmental excellence and sustainability.