Science For Sale

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Daniel S Greenberg, Chicago University Press, £14

Even for the most dedicated activist modern science is hard to avoid. Research into genetics becomes tabloid news explaining crime, poverty and ability. Theories on climate change are used to explain how the world can be saved under capitalism and the constant disgrace of drug patenting hampers the fight against Aids across the world.

With scientific discovery affecting every aspect of our lives, a discussion of who controls research should be relevant to everyone who wants a better world. Unfortunately Greenberg's Science for Sale is more likely to be bedside reading for university administrators than for anti-capitalist activists.

Its focus is on the relationship between the funding of and profiting from research instead of asking whether other ways of organising science are possible. The development of modern science in the US is, however, still interesting as the US government invests billions in research. The federal government recognises that companies are unwilling to invest in the cutting edge research which has enabled US companies to dominate the global market - creating a situation where public money openly funds private profit.

One of the most famous examples is the development of the drug taxol. The National Institute of Health sold a decade of research and drug development for $38 million to a private company. The drug, sold at an extortionate price, made $9 billion in sales despite outrage at the exploitation of public research. Such an extreme example can be dismissed as an anomaly but in US law it is a requirement that state funded research is sold to corporations or "spun off" into small companies that can be bought up by venture capital.

The book hints at some of the deeper contradictions of scientific research under capitalism. The tension between scientific research that increases our understanding of how the world works and narrower, more commercially viable research is the unacknowledged theme of the book. Greenberg recognises that the private sector accounts for a large percentage of research and development but invests very little in the more academic research conducted in universities. Effectively, the taxpayer picks up the bill for real advances in science while private labs exploit the profitable conclusions. Despite recognising this fact, he dismisses the idea that there is any alternative.

Science for Sale misses both the real history of science and universities' relationship to global capitalism. The distortion of science by capitalism is, perhaps, a subject for a better book.