War and science in the 20th century

The aforementioned Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari point out:

“…ordinary people are required to pay for science through their taxes, but are often denied information about it, or have little say over its application and control – and are then expected to accept its findings and products gratefully and without question. And they are starting to resent it.” (p.6)

They explain: “During the first 300 years of science, it was generally held that knowledge should be shared freely; bodies such as England’s Royal Society and France’s Academie des Sciences were set up to foster this ideal: an ideal that remains to this day one of the guiding lights of science – alas, the light is dimming. The 20th century gave birth to the greatest proliferation of knowledge in the million-year story of humanity. Yet, departing from the ideals of the earlier centuries of scientific inquiry, the main driving force of 20th century discovery and innovation was not the quest for enlightenment: it was war. The motor car, the aircraft, the computer, advanced communications, rocketry, modern chemistry, and even aspects of medicine and biology were all widely developed and adopted in service to the military machine. This militarisation of research has largely defined the structure of the modern scientific enterprise. Knowledge, once regarded as the common heritage of humanity, has become the closely guarded asset of the few – a handful of nations, a few corporations, the military and a few elites. More than half a century ago, people in science were profoundly disturbed by this trend. Sir Henry Dale, president of Britain’s Royal Society, said in 1946:

I hold it to be our right and our duty to unite in telling the world insistently that if national policies fail to free science in peace from the secrecy it accepted as a necessity of war, they will poison its very spirit…” (p.2)

“As humanity progresses through the 21st century – the global century – many scholars point to the emergence of a disturbing trend: the world is dividing into those with ready access to knowledge and its fruits, and those without.” (p.3)

In the early 21st century, there has been a subtle shift in the attitude of society to science in both developed and developing countries. This has moved from a general public acceptance of the authority of science to a questioning of its ethics and trustworthiness. During the Cold War era, science was often identified with national security: it was unpopular, unpatriotic and even personally risky to question it. Science and its secrecy went broadly unchallenged. With the ending of the Cold War, however, science became less closely identified with national security and increasingly aligned with the interests of global corporations, which were the world’s new technology powerhouses and research-funding sources. This led to questions in many local communities about whether science was acting in the people’s interests – or those of global wealth and power. Individuals willing to tolerate exclusions for national security reasons were not prepared to put up with it for the sake of ‘foreign’ commercial interests. Coupled with sensational biological experiments, such [as] the cloning of human cells, this has led to the present focus on the morality and control of science.” (p.6)

“In the developing world…, Western science is not always widely regarded as being in the interests of the people because it appears, for the most part, as the knowledge system of foreign countries, alien cultures, uncaring corporations or oppressive local elites. Nevertheless, some forms of science involving agriculture, water, public health, transport and the like have been widely applied for public good and have brought very great improvements to people’s lives. Thus, it is not the science that is the true object of suspicion, so much as the system that engenders and promotes it.” (p.7)

The nature of 21st century conflict is emerging as quite different from that of 20th century strife, being spurred on by this deficiency in basic human needs, resources and knowledge. Many countries, several regions and some continents now exist in a state of precarious instability as vast pressures build up beneath the surface of societies. Indeed, conflicts have already broken out between the haves and have-nots, the knowledge-empowered and the knowledge-deprived. They are being fought out not on battlefields but in the streets and alleys, the festering shanty towns and struggling villages, the spreading global cancer of drugs taken to blot out the ennui of exclusion. In the developing world, this failure to share knowledge fairly causes governments to fail, infant democracies to founder, and unleashes floods of refugees internally and across borders. It was an ingredient in the circumstances that led to the Global War on Terror and instability in central and southern Asia. In both developed and developing worlds, it is turning sections of great cities into combat zones where the affluent inhabit electronic fortresses and the poor and knowledge-deprived stalk streets where police fear to tread.

“While one in six humans lives in abject poverty, half the world’s people live in a state of knowledge deprivation, meaning that they cannot obtain the basic knowledge or technologies necessary for a decent life, to raise their children, eat well, enjoy good health and improve their circumstances. They also lack the empowerment that goes with solving their own problems. / The knowledge-deprived of the 21st century find themselves at the margins of society: a place where even survival is doubtful for many. The 25 000 children who die daily from malnutrition-related disease also die from a lack of knowledge. The knowledge to save almost all of them exists, but, for various reasons, it does not get through – at least in forms their communities can access, afford or use.” (p.4)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari (2010) Open Science: sharing knowledge in the global century. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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