Words By Rosie Burgess
Post-enlightenment science is purported to be committed to the overarching good and the supposed path to truth. Famous philosopher Immanuel Kant once referred to its motto as “dare to know! Have the courage to use your understanding”. Modern science as we know it would not have existed without ancient developments either. From Herophilus (335–280 bc) dissecting and describing the nervous system to Hippocrates (460 BC -370b) as the first to describe various diseases, science has come far. Despite what many may think, capitalism and science have interacted in a complex manner throughout the ages. This complexity continues through to the present day, and as such I will do my best to convey the most important points while inevitably leaving some things out.
One of the first main scientific innovations discovered was the smallpox vaccine, which shaped humanity forever by allowing the eradication of a disease which killed nearly one in every three people infected. And, in light of another pandemic, capitalists argue that the quick development of a COVID-19 vaccine could not have been possible in a system without remuneration tied to productivity. After all, it was hyper-capitalist America that has continually led the world in biomedical research and nuclear development. Hell, they even got to the moon first. If science is the primary solution to improving the world then capitalism seems to be the perfect accompaniment because scientists can be pressured to develop life-saving vaccines in record-breaking times.
Some arguments against capitalism argue that profit is what determines research and this can be restrictive. Many types of research could be unprofitable and therefore are not pursued. The development of antibiotics is an example of how companies find certain pursuits unappealing despite a demand. Antibiotics’ clinical uses are limited to a short time whereas treatments for chronic illnesses for which the patient is taking medication for the rest of their life and this is much more profitable. It is unsurprising to see there is exceeding private investment in this sector despite the undeniable argument that the pursuit of antibiotics is much more urgent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that antibiotic-resistance is the ‘greatest risk to health’ because of the increasing possibility of common infections being able to kill people. Despite this troubling news, Big Pharma, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world has abandoned its pursuit of antibiotic research.
Another argument is that scientists need to continually produce fast-paced breakthrough research to be published in the ‘best’ journals. These prestigious journals are not only selective but are driven by profit. Scientists are therefore unlikely to choose to publish that which is risky and long term. It begs the question, what would scientists such as double Nobel Prize winner Fred Sanger have done? Sanger spent a lot of his life working on the long term goal of understanding genetics instead of regular publishing but deservedly won the Nobel Prize twice. The ‘publish or perish’ model — where important scientific papers now lie behind paywalls has impacted the very course of science as we know it. Scientists have been pressured to pursue one business model in order to survive where they must conform in a system that they have been taught to challenge, but only if it makes money. Some debates also propose that scientific progress has been controlled by capitalism because it creates unhealthy competition between countries, each racing to claim legal intellectual property for essentially the same discoveries. What innovations will lie still because of countries not working together?
Instead of working to challenge new ideas and developing knowledge, scientists find themselves concerned about relevancy and profit in a system that is essentially the arbiter of creative destruction.
Another example of how capitalism has impeded the progress of science is in response to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance. Previously, The Soviet Union developed bacteriophages to treat infections because of restricted access to antibiotics. Phage therapy has since proved to be a promising development in the fight against antibiotic resistance because of its relative cost-effectiveness and efficacy. The problem is that phage therapy has not been recognized as profitable to companies because bacteriophages cannot be patented and so are not being rightly invested in.
In conclusion, from the capitalist grandiose proclamations about its effectiveness in the fight against COVID-19 to concerns shown by the people who question the real price of profiting off science — capitalism’s ability to help solve one of the most threatening problems humanity has faced is clear. It has, however, highlighted the massive inequality and unsustainability of a system in which scientific progress has and will be unquestionably hindered.