Science frictions

September 24, 1999

Harry Kroto's strong argument ("Show me the science", THES, September 17) is that media presentation of science as entertainment is undermining general knowledge and understanding of science. Yet this was precisely the end result of the ill-framed debate reported in the same issue from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, presumably organised and run by scientists.

To presume that simple-minded commercial interests have anything at all to do with real social costs and benefits is nonsense, popular and entertaining though the result might be. Where is the science in this hypothesis, and how on earth can the ensuing debate contribute anything to genuine understanding of the issues?

The real debate is about public regulation of private commercial behaviour in the public interest, about the public interest in health and in food safety; about the public interest in the environment(s); about the public interest in relief of poverty in most of the world, which is at the root of food insecurity; about the role and place of markets and their governance.

Ungoverned pharmaceutical divisions are potentially just as dangerous as their agri-biochemical and bio-engineering counterparts. Superficially business-like treatment of naively conceived commercial advantage does the serious debate no favours and condemns the real science to ignorance.

More than anything else, the nub of the real debate is about the private appropriation of intellectual and biophysical property rights against the public interest. The BAAS debate completely ignored these genuine issues.

David Harvey Professor of agricultural economics University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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