The neutrality of science

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The neutrality of science

Many scientists, social scientists among them, subscribe to the view that science is in some way neutral so far as human values are concerned.

The idea is that because science is an account of the facts then it stands apart from the way in which its findings are used, and further that scientists must detach themselves from any moral considerations about their research for otherwise their biases and prejudices will interfere with their ability to find out the facts.

Although still popular among many scientists, the idea of the neutrality of science has been severely eroded since 1945.

The Haldane Committee (1918) established the research framework through which British governments funded scientific research. It placed scientists in a position to decide how government research money should be spent. It was assumed that scientific progress would be jeopardized if political or commercial considerations were allowed too great a say, and that scientists best knew what research needed to be done.

The neutrality of science

In contrast the Rothschild Report (1971) stressed the overwhelming importance of not letting scientists decide what research needs to be done. Instead there should be a customer-contractor relationship between industry or government and the scientist, with the customer deciding what research needs to be done, by whom and for what purpose. This means that the pattern of development of scientific research has to be understood partly as a response to the needs and interests of those who pay for the research to be done.

The idea that scientific research practised under such circumstances can be value-free is un-sociological because it ignores the values of those who allocate research funds, and of those who will eventually decide whether and how research findings are to be implemented.

Marxists see science under capitalism as a large scale capital intensive industry with scientists working in large scale hierarchical organisations on projects, or bits of projects, assigned to them by administrators. Science, they argue, has become a tool wielded in the interests of the ruling class. Instead of research being directed to areas that would benefit most people, it is directed towards increasing profitability, and increasing the effectiveness of social control.

Marxists would argue that increasing profitability is not the same as increasing human welfare. They might point, for example, at the drugs industry where the two major research items are into advertising, and into producing drugs which are essentially the same as other drugs but which do not infringe patent laws. Or they might point out that much of the research into new technology is designed not to increase production but to produce the same amount at a lower cost by replacing workers with machines.

As concerns the role of science in social control, one estimate of the proportion of the scientific budget of the west that goes into arms related areas of research is 70%. Less obvious, but thought to be equally important by radical scientists, is the role of science in producing ideologies favourable to the perpetuation of capitalism.

Inequalities of wealth and power, aggression, competitiveness, patriarchy and xenophobia, it is claimed, far from being socially determined are reduced to being the inevitable products of biological evolution (Rose & Rose 1990). Thus far from being a neutral reading of the facts of nature science is seen as being pressed into service to justify inequality and explain away unpleasant features of capitalism.