7 Dec 2007

Science as Intellectual Property (Book Review)

Dorothy Nelkin, Science as Intellectual Property: Who Controls Research?, AAAS Series on Issues in Science and Technology, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1984 [pp. i-ix, 1-130]

This book by Ms. Nelkin, published under the aegis of the 'American Association for the Advancement of Science' is one thought-provocative and eye-opener account of a late sociologist of science which makes interesting observations on the changing directions of scientific research, primarily owing to the increasing governmental interventions and commercial motivations plaguing the hitherto objectively-driven field. In the seven chapters of the Book, she has sought to address various intriguing questions relating to the increasingly being monopolized scientific research; some of them being, who controls research; who determines the flow of scientific knowhow; etc.

Chapter 1 titled 'The Ownership and Control of Scientific Information' raises several questions to begin with; what does government funding mean in terms of public access and investigator control?; does the Freedom of Information Act apply to research that is in progress?; can scientists themselves use their data and ideas in whatever way they choose? etc., which are indeed perplexing and for which there exist several unlinked and diagrammatically opposite solutions. Distinguishing between 'basic research' (one 'concerned primarily with the advancement of knowledge') and 'applied research' (one 'oriented towards the development of new products of commercial or military value') she raises genuine concerns as regards the directions towards which "the research" is heading to. Adding various illustrations (I would just point out one which I think is a routine-matter these days), she brings to fore the concerns affecting research trends; "Questions of ownership and control arise when scientists attempt to disseminate health and safety data in what they believe to be the public's interest and are blocked by agencies or employers seeking to control the research they support."

Chapter 2 titled 'Proprietary Secrets versus Open Communication in Science' starts with an interesting real-life dispute on the ownership of research results on a blood-sample of a leukemia-affected deceased; a tussle between a not-for-profit research group of a University and a pharmaceutical giant. She hints the profit-maximization tendency of corporations as restricting research to those areas which promote commercial gains rather than development of scientific temper and adding to the existing knowledge base of human-kind. She adds a series of other real-life situations which leaves the reader bewildered as to the extent and consistency with which biased and purely-profit-driven inducements have been plaguing the field of scientific research. The approach of the law courts in this regard is also made a subject of critical scrutiny in the Chapter.

Chapter 3 titled 'Public Access Versus Professional Control' brings to fore empirical evidence to the end that even the 'Freedom of Information' enactment has been abused by the failure of the authorities to disclose and grant access to controversial information, which may have been prejudicial to certain political or commercial groups with the net effect being; outcomes of research being given a back-burner treatment. Thus she illustrates that even the ways of means for the public to access information and outcomes of the scientific research has been controlled, if not blocked, by professional agencies with not-so-clean intentions.

Chapter 4 titled 'Rights of Access versus Obligations of Confidentiality' begins with an interesting account of the (1971) circumstances surrounding political scientist Samuel Popkin in relation to his 'research on political forces and social movements in Vietnam and on the American policy in that country' wherein Popkin had to face imprisonment for contempt for
inter alia his refusal to disclose the information he had collected during his research, followed by the refusal of the Supreme Court to interfere in the matter. She further goes on to give other accounts wherein researchers have been manipulated or man-handled in the wake of vested interests and their confidentiality rights being breached; another method of influencing scientific research.

Chapter 5 titled 'Whistleblowing Versus Proprietary Rights' is replete with illustrations wherein researchers, who have come to know of abusive practices prevalent in the organizations they were associated to and have tried to expose the same, or have not worked in the sponsored line of the organizational policy, have been shown the way out. She then goes to empirically establish the widespread discouragement to disclosure of prejudicial information, despite the same being scientifically relevant. Another lesson for researchers to act in the line shown and not digress!!!

Chapter 6 titled 'National Security versus Scientific Freedom' is a catalogue of events and incidents wherein scientific reports has been gagged in the name of national security concerns; yet another reason to identify the manner in which scientific research is redirected to selected lines and shunned from restricted areas.

Chapter 7 titled 'Negotiating the Control of Scientific Information', though the final chapter of the book, really puts the final nail in the coffin. She personifies the relationship between science and society as a marriage, a relationship implying 'shared assumptions and mutual trust', which has been breached and modified as a 'negotiated agreement and exchange'. Clearly, she has dealienated the level of intervention which the development of scientific temper faces. Building up the relevance and importance of 'science in a changing society and political context', 'science, sovereignty and secrecy', she concludes, if at all it can be described as conclusion, that the future of independent scientific research may as well be hidden in 'negotiation and accommodation' wherein even though there may be apparently not 'moral justification for limiting the freedom', but the course may as well take such limitations for granted and proceed thereon, acknowledging them as the obstacles but nonetheless moving ahead in its quest for an independent co-existence with other natural and allied sciences.

A worthwhile reading. [ :) ]

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