“Intellectuals in their self-flattering wish-fulfillment say that knowledge is power, but the truth is that knowledge further empowers only those who have or can acquire the power to use it.”
This is something that was really hard to read at first, especially as someone who is overeducated and clearly spends a lot of time thinking about educating other people about science. But I realized that it also gets at something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately when it comes to projects like DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology) that aim to “democratize” scientific research. For example, from Meredith Patterson’s “BioPunk Manifesto”:
Biopunks deplore restrictions on independent research, for the right to arrive independently at an understanding of the world around oneself is a fundamental human right. Curiosity knows no ethnic, gender, age, or socioeconomic boundaries, but the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity all too often turns on economic opportunity, and we aim to break down that barrier. A thirteen-year-old kid in South Central Los Angeles has just as much of a right to investigate the world as does a university professor. If thermocyclers [DNA copying machines] are too expensive to give one to every interested person, then we’ll design cheaper ones and teach people how to build them.
I completely agree that everyone should be able to experience the wonder of the natural world the way that I do as a scientist, and the work that DIYbio has done to promote scientific participation and enthusiasm is unparalleled, and something that people concerned with scientific literacy and public engagement with science should look to as a model for at least part of a broader program. However, what the thirteen year old kid in South Central LA needs is not a cheap thermocycler, but a safe and stable environment to grow and learn, a community where there are fulfilling jobs that provide a living wage, where immigrants have legal rights, where the opportunity to learn about high level science is available in the first place.
What does the ability to copy DNA or knowledge of a genetic sequence give to someone who lives in a community plagued by violence and poverty? Who is benefiting from the push for DIYbio? Who are the actors “democratizing” science? By and large, the people participating in DIYbio are current students at elite colleges and universities or recent graduates, often even with advanced degrees in science and engineering and have worked or are currently working in university labs. They are also more often than not white, middle class, and primarily male (with notable exceptions, like Meredith). DIYbio can perpetuate social divisions in science and engineering even when on the surface claiming to break them down.
Moreover, the myth of the Victorian Gentleman Scientist permeating the rhetoric of DIYbio is a powerful one–a scientist pursuing a “pure” science not because of an interest in money and free of any state control but because of a deep curiosity with the power of the natural world. But the Victorian Gentleman is also independently wealthy off of money he didn’t make himself, living in a house taken care of by women who have no voice or education. Where does the money come from for the modern home scientist? Who can afford to do unpaid work in the first place, not to even mention self-funded research in molecular biology? Science isn’t and shouldn’t be the sport of the privileged, and institutional labs today are staffed with people of many different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds (although it’s still going to take a lot more to be truly equal).
What if instead of trying to work outside the system, overhyping the possibilities of biological technologies and at the same time devaluing the scientific labor that happens around the world in many different institutional environments, we worked towards an even better structure for science? The emphasis on open, shared work is wonderful and starting to be embraced by many in academia, what if we could have a real open, collaborative scientific enterprise across disciplines and academic or industrial barriers? What if there were more opportunities for high-paying technical jobs in science for people without advanced degrees? What if there were more biotech vocational programs to learn the skills you would need to work in these jobs? What if it were easier and cheaper for groups of scientists and engineers everywhere to turn ideas and hypotheses into technology and knowledge? What if there were real ways for knowledge to become power for that kid living in South Central LA?
Anyone can do science and garage biotechnologists and grad school dropouts will likely come up with powerful technologies and perhaps even empires to rival those of Microsoft, Apple, and Google that emerged from a culture of computer hacking forty years ago, but for knowledge to be power, for science to be truly democratic, we’re going to need a lot more than cheap thermocyclers.