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The Commercialization of Science and the Struggle Against It

The March for Science, April 22, 2017.

In the core countries of the global economic system, science has long been a productive power. Universities and laboratories today have become factories of knowledge and discovery, and scientists are the proletariat of these factories. There has long been a critique of the role of science and scientists in the capitalist system. What is happening with science/scholarship in the core countries, what is the position of science workers in Western universities and in particular, in the United States? In this text we present an interview with Denys Bondar, a young Ukrainian scientist working in one of the famous North American universities.

Questions were asked by Stanislav Sergienko and Dmitry Ryder. Published in Russian on, this interview was translated into English by Leyla Jafarova, Olena Lyubcheno, and Ben Sigelman.

Please tell us about your background. How did you become a leftist?

I come from Ukraine and in 2005 I moved to Canada for a PhD. Before this I participated in the Orange Revolution. This experience greatly influenced me – to be a part of a mass movement, it was something quite extraordinary. But then I became disillusioned with the results of the Orange Revolution and became apolitical. When the second Maidan began, I was not yet a leftist, but I had leftist friends and colleagues who were involved in leftist organizations in the US. I communicated with them, but did not support their views strongly, saying something like, “I remember the Soviet Union and the long lines, are you crazy?” After the PhD, I moved to the US from Canada in 2011, just a month before Occupy Wall Street. And I remember that even in Princeton, where I was based, in a small elite town, there were three tents – a small Occupy. This was a huge phenomenon. And I was thinking “what the hell, why are they protesting? I wish we had their problems in Ukraine.” My leftist political views began to form close to the time of the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of serious, but not yet militarized, unrest in Eastern Ukraine. And then I began to turn left politically and it was very funny. There is this Ukrainian electronic newspaper, “Historical Truth,” which during the time of the Maidan republished Trotsky’s article of September 5, 1939, where he describes Stalin and Hitler. I was shocked by how well-written Trotsky’s piece was. It felt incredibly relevant to events that were unfolding. Honestly, on the one hand, I was touched by this, and on the other hand there was a crisis of mainstream media, not one single point of view that you heard was enough and did not fully explain the complexity of the social dynamics. So Trotsky’s ‘old’ text was more modern than all these experts who appeared on TV day and night. And this served as an impetus for becoming a leftist although I could have become more rightist, but it turned out that I was in good company and so I became a leftist.

There was one other notable moment: Princeton has a faculty of International Relations named after Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was the university’s president before he became the president of the US. This is really a very famous institution, a pipeline for diplomats and employees of the State Department. This faculty was hosting a seminar on the events in Ukraine. That is, before the Crimean affairs. I was struck by the words of a professor who said something like, he advises Merkel on what to do, and that the road to peace in Damascus lies through Kiev. I was surprised by this seminar in the sense that when you say ‘geopolitics’, when you see talking heads talk on TV, it is one thing, but when it is the people who come from the bowels of the state apparatus, from what Obama called “the blob,” and really explain what they think, explain their logic, then you understand that they see you (a Ukrainian or whoever) as an instrument through which they resolve problems; you are just instrumental to their decisions. And there I clearly saw the crisis and the contradictory nature of this kind of analysis.

There was another interesting case when I wrote a letter to Obama, at the beginning of the Maidan. Something like sanctions against Yanukovich and the need to support the democratic movement. I received an answer in about a year. Although the reply was already about something else altogether, that we are for the territorial integrity of Ukraine. I showed it to my friends – see, I said, you write to Obama and he does not answer back, but he did answer me (laughing). And of course there was an interesting dynamic amongst the migrants, who were divided into two camps, regardless of citizenship, and of course there were the Facebook wars. There were protests at the Russian consulate in New York, and by the White House. There was a minority, which did not become left, but could have, but here we were. We must understand why they did not. They took on a more neutral, “more ‘healthy’ point of view. Then I tried to do a bit of political activism in America. I watched the work of this one small leftist political organization from the inside, while not being a member, and it was a very interesting experience. I understood what a political party is, and understood what politics is. For me, a product of the Orange Revolution, politics was an electoral campaign, fair elections. And of course, in some ways the second, late Maidan, was also within the framework of the system, a part of the electoral system. And then I witnessed in the US an attempt to create an alternative political party with real ties to the working class. Not just to the electorate, because they are not an electoral party; they do not have an electorate. This was a unique experience for me. I started to understand how the very concept of class works. That left cliches are actually not cliches. That there are class interests, and that they do not depend on the country, that they are international. That they do not depend on skin colour, sexual orientation, or religious views, that class is an objective social category. And then I saw attempts at creating a union for graduate students at Princeton, therefore: it was impossible not to become a leftist.

In Eastern Europe, science is not yet as commercialized as it is in the West. How does the commercialization of science happen and how can we fight it?

The commercialization of science in the West has very deep roots; this process took at least 30 or 40 years. And it continues. Here we have to divide science into two categories. If we are talking about science in universities, then we can talk about the commercialization of science in universities. If we are talking about research conducted in companies, then this is initially a commercial activity. In universities, science is the tip of the iceberg, because there is an education system, a whole infrastructure, a state-funded education system, education policy, so science is just part of an integral complex.  It cannot be separated, otherwise the analysis will not be complete. The commercialization of science began with neoliberalism, in the ‘80s.

That is, when the philosophy of neoliberalism was introduced – in opposition to “the big state,” which means that the state should not invest big money in science. And you can look at the graph, where it is clear that the state funding for science is gradually starting to fall, and these sectors are being filled by industry. Industry money that flows into universities. What I will say is pretty trivial, it will sound like a history of all production. The university is built into a political-economic system, although university workers think that they are separated from the rest of the world, there is this notion – an ivory tower.  In fact, this is all propaganda, like, come here, you can abstract yourselves here, but in fact it just another option for exploitation. The same dynamic happens inside. For instance, universities are launching a whole legal campaign pushing through laws according to which the university’s logo, even if it is a state university, is a patented thing that only the university has the right to sell logo t-shirts, that is, it has a logo license. In my first year in the US, we were taught a course on the ethics of research, and a large part of the course, well, a significant part, was dedicated to brainwashing us about how great it is the in the US, what a great achievement is the Bayh – Dole Act, according to which all discoveries made on public money are the property of the discoverer or his/her employer. This means that if you discovered something at the university, which is funded through state grants, it is your property or the property of the university.  In particular at Princeton, it will be the property of the university. This opens the space for the mass commercialization of science. It is accompanied by a reduction in the funding for state programs, which is paradoxically what the university administrations lobbies for at a national or state level. This is a part of the class war of the university administration with the working class, formed in part by professors and researchers.

How to fight this?

In North America, one region that at least somewhat effectively resists this is Quebec. But again, this is partly because of the large student movement, a very strong left activism. There is constant resistance to the commercialization of not only the science system, but also the educational system. Here (in the United States), however, if you come to the university to work on a specific project for a specific period of time, you are bombarded from all sides with posters, emails saying ‘let’s stir up a startup’. That is, it is such a normal part of the overall program, from the first day such social pressure to think about a startup, think about a startup …about setting yourself up as a businessman. At this stage/moment I will say the following, the dynamic is such that everyone complains about the working conditions specifically at universities, because working conditions in a material sense are worse than if you work for a company. The question is not about money only, but also about the lack of career growth. That is, how you got into the scientific environment, going to the next level is nearly impossible. Because massive overproduction of scientific personnel, plus the globalization of the science labour market, create such fierce competition. But on the other hand, everyone says – well, well, I have a bad salary there. Here a famous Soviet joke is applicable, that they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. But there’s always the illusory hope: “I will try to create my own startup, find investors and collaborators, use my labor freedom,” but this is all, of course, an illusion. You and the vast majority need to invest a lot of time and energy in it, of course, and get nothing in return.

Thus, even if you do become one of the founders of such a start-up, you do not make any money for a long time at all. This is basically the psychology behind these startups, this is the ideology of the free market: if you are cool at Princeton, one of the best universities, and you are in America, the country of business, and if you cannot start a business, this is your problem and there must be something wrong with you. Oddly enough, academics are buying into it. So for now there is no effective resistance strategy, but it seems to me the situation is slowly evolving. The situation is evolving so rapidly that very few would have thought that scientists would come out for a mass protest after the election of Trump -and to see scientists protesting Trump’s election with “The March for Science” and their own demands was a surprise to many. I understand that no organization or organized resistance came out of it, but the fact that it happened was a non-trivial achievement in my opinion. Plus, there is a massive attempt to create graduate student unions at private universities. Graduate student unions at private universities in the US are not really allowed due to the “uncertainty” about the status of graduate students (there is a widespread legal opinion that graduate students are not employees, but students, and cannot therefore form a union). Still, it is a time of hope, this is a launching platform of a kind.

If you talk to the active organizers, the commercialization of science is surely one of the theses that circulate as one of their main talking points. That is, commercialization of science can be fought through such old-fashioned methods as labor movements and trade unions. The latter usually happens under the auspices of large trade unions already established in other industries. Thus, if you establish a trade union at a university, it automatically becomes affiliated with a larger national trade union, which includes other types of workers. The process is quite organic. If we had a labor union at Princeton, we could have received solidarity from other universities with labor unions; at other universities, there is already a good deal of solidarity between researchers and  workers, custodians, culinary workers, secretaries. Even though in U.S. labor law solidarity strikes are illegal, a solidarity strike is possible in the future; this is also one form of support that is practiced. For example, when university canteen workers go on strike to improve working conditions, at times some academics also join them.

It seems to me that the most important questions here are: What is the share of private funding at universities? Are companies in a position to order research from universities? How does the exploitation of academic workers take place?

This is a very important question. The large private universities that receive the lion’s share of research grants don’t disclose how much they are being paid. So how does it usually happen? Working conditions at research companies are much better than those of university employees. Salaries and sometimes even pension terms and medical insurance are way better. It turns out that the low salaries of most of the university research staff suits companies very well, especially if they are not very big. Why would a company hire a whole research group, considering that it also needs infrastructure, if companies it can just come to a university and find a professor or a group, conducting the research they are interested in, and order a project? Of course, they are paid as in academia, not as in industry. Right now, as competition is growing, state funding is declining, considering inflation. So it’s profitable to have private money, which is also encouraged by both private and public universities. It is also very widespread for successful professors to have their own companies, which causes a conflict of interest. This means that commercialization takes place not only from the outside, but also from the inside. Graduate students and researchers, such as postdocs, get caught in the crossfire.

When it comes to exploitation from the Marxist perspective, this is a very interesting topic, because if you approach a researcher in the natural sciences and ask about it point-blank, he will answer: no, no, I’m not exploited, I do what I want, I do what I love, I do calculations. Formally, you have a contract. During his last year in office, Obama raised the rate, and therefore they had to raise postdoc salaries, since they were below this rate. If you work overtime, you should be compensated for this. And, of course, they raised salaries exactly to the federal minimum rate. Basically, the administration expects researchers to work almost 24 hours a day. Academic workers work off-work hours, not from 9 to 5. They also work on weekends, which is an unwritten rule. Coming to work on Saturday and Sunday and staying for longer hours is a social norm. Plus, there is such a factor that formally you can work whenever you want to, and you are not formally controlled. You are basically paid for a finished product. Here, returning to Marx, this is basically a piece wage, a form of labor relations that a scientist enters into. Everything described by Marx is in essence applicable with moderate adaptations.

If researchers are members of the working class / proletariat, what forms of struggle and solidarity among them are possible? Also, how can we connect the struggle of academic workers with the struggle of the traditional proletariat?

It is impossible to answer this question without engaging with the theory on how scientific production, the production of knowledge, and the production of intellectual commodities are inscribed and interwoven into the dynamics of capitalist production. Oddly enough — well, this is for the benefit of my bourgeois friends — I provide two links, two books, and also share Michael Roberts’ blog, which provides a new left analysis of capitalism with a bunch of graphs, math, numbers, and quantitative analysis that supports Marx’s theses. How does capitalism work? According to Marx, capitalism is, on the one hand, a kind of social relationship, and on the other – the movement of value (see diagram below).

When Marx talks about capital, he talks about how value acquires different forms: both the financial and material sides are only forms. It all starts with a capitalist who comes with a certain amount of money. Then come people and nature. These two categories — people and nature — exist in symbiosis. The capitalist doesn’t care about this symbiosis; what he is interested in is an abstraction. That is to say, in order to start production, he needs to acquire labor-power and means of production. What are the means of production in the Marxist understanding? They are mineral resources, machinery, tools, etc. The blue arrows on the diagram point to the movement of values. That is, the money is simply divided into two parts: one part is spent on the means of production and another to acquire labor-power. But this amount is basically equal to the initial amount. These arrows are actually social relationships. How do people become workers? How is nature commodified? What is the cost of mineral resources? How much is the salary? These questions are answered by class struggle. In the following steps, labor-power gets together with the means of production. In the scientific field, it could be RD or any other sphere of activity that produces surplus value. At the end of the cycle, the value of the produced commodities exceeds the value of the invested capital. So the question is: what happened? According to Marx, the difference lies here — the value of labor-power doesn’t equal the value of labor. That is, when a capitalist buys labor-power, he is buying a person’s capacity to do work. A capitalist’s goal is to make a worker work more than the value of his labor-power. The value of labor-power is equal to the cost of accommodation, food, clothing, education, entertainment, medicine, health care, etc. (averaged throughout society at a particular time), necessary to maintain the physical and psychological condition in order to enable the worker to continue working.

Science plays a key role in the field of production. The line between fundamental and applied research is very blurred. Marx has demonstrated why a capitalist would invest in technological development: just because for some time you can make more profit than your competitors. The need for scientific progress is actually dictated by the dynamics of capitalism. That is, automation plays an enormous role in the field of production. Unemployment is related to automation. Each stage of production comes into contact with science and with the fruits of scientific work. And here solidarity is very possible. I will share my example. Two years ago, the employees of Verizon, a large telecommunications company in America, were on strike. They were on strike, and I approached the striking workers with my friends. We came and expressed our solidarity with them and so on. And they looked at us and asked where we were from. We said we were from Princeton University, and they didn’t understand what we were doing there, but after five minutes of hanging around and talking, they understood. Some of these striking workers had a protest sign that read “We are for decent workplaces,” meaning decent working conditions with a union. And we explained why we were supporting them: because we were not some elite brats, but shared the same dynamics as them: “we are exploited, you are exploited.” They want to dissolve you and your department to destroy the union, but we haven’t got a union yet and have no voice in anything the university does. Moreover, representatives of some private companies constantly come to our university to give presentations. The company gave us a task, and they wanted our research group to help solve this problem. And the task was, as they said at the end of the presentation, to “imagine you can help us fire a thousand workers with an annual salary of $70,000.” We all had a jaw-dropped look, because we make $40,000 a year. Thus, with our own hands they want to fire people with an annual salary of $70,000. So, you see, here they are using science as a tool of class conflict, so that we would help them optimize the work force and automate work flow. To fire not unskilled workers, because unskilled workers don’t make 70,000 a year. You know, when all our colleagues with a salary of 40,000 heard this, when they were told this face to face–one doesn’t even have to be a leftist to feel a spark of solidarity between us. This is an example of how science is used to extract surplus value and how we are used in the class conflict.

The next stage is realization of the product. Realization is a complex dynamic that includes commerce, marketing, advertising, and logistics. As strange as this may be, many of the main innovations in developed capitalist countries are actually occurring on a logistical and marketing level. Of course, one can say that in production the natural sciences are used and in realization the social sciences are used. And the role of the state is the coordination of this process, the coordination of the relations between financial and industrial capital. Of course, an important part of this cycle is innovation in scientific directions necessary for a capitalist. Concerning the role of science, I’d also like to say this: when private companies want to develop something, they basically know pretty much what exactly they want. It’s a more or less exact task that at the end of the day is connected with optimizing production. Optimizing production, as we know, essentially means that someone needs to be fired. The state, on the other hand, has more fundamental functions between science and production. It creates whole industries, like creating a field for new markets. I have two examples, look: news number one – the release of a gigantic program financing artificial intelligence so that they become the market leader by 2020. Here you see the wonderful role of the state. I mean, artificial intelligence on the commercial level is developed in China. But China wants to create new markets for this technology, create a serious production, production relations, and commercial relations network. I mean, it’s impossible to do that on the level of individual capitalists, however big they may be. Here I, of course, can’t but cite Marx that the state is an executive committee of capitalists. And news number two: a mega-project in China creating a cryptocurrency network, meaning satellites are released, centers are created, meaning it’s starting to work, well, for now in the experimental phase, but the speed of development is simply extraordinary. It turns out that there are two examples when the state initiates the creation of a scientific production infrastructure, which opens a mass of new markets and possibilities. Additionally, there is also old information about the development of a new generation of microprocessors by the Chinese government. And it made the American IT-class panic so much that Obama even published a special order that they need to fight it. Here’s an example for you of science being used not only for exploiting already existent production relations, but also creating new markets and new possibilities for exploitation. There’s actually a museum of Edison near Princeton. What’s interesting is that if you go to this museum, you start to understand what was ingenious about Edison. First of all, he was a smart man, but not as much of a genius as they portray him. He was an even smarter manager: he understood that technology has to be created and a market found for it. For example, while the electrification of Manhattan was going on, he understood that no one would build a whole infrastructure of show lines and stations for the sake of having light four hours a day. And he developed a whole series of everyday appliances with the development of the lamp. I mean, this story about Edison is very contemporary, it’s what they’re doing in China. You don’t simply make science for science’s sake, you make science and in parallel create a whole infrastructure. I mean, it’s such a symbiosis between science and industry. Therefore, to talk about the division of fundamental and applied science is all bourgeois fantasy.


The Scientific Process under Capitalism or the Innovational Economy

Are you familiar with any previous leftist movements like Radical Science? If so, then do you know something additional now? Do leftists need their own pop science to counterbalance the growing liberal one?

I recently heard that there is one in Europe, I want to find out more details. But I am familiar with the existence of leftist dissidence in science. On the other hand, there are two books that I’d recommend, The Dialectical Biologist and the book Disciplined Minds. It’s a very good book, freely accessible. The author is a theoretical physicist, my colleague, you can say, who very critically described the ideology and political economy of higher education. It’s such a critical view of the function of experts and the structure of higher education, the scientific community, and professional scientific work. He was the editor of the well-known scientific journal Physics Today. When he wrote this book, he was momentarily fired. Then there was a big trial, precisely because of this book. And then he left symbolically, he quit on the second day. In this book, there are many historical examples of dissident scientists. With scientists in America, there was an attempt during the Vietnam War to politicize the role of science in a military industrial complex. We live in a very, very complicated economic time and in a military time where imperialism is simply in full bloom, almost in a nineteenth-century format. And since the military industry is very closely connected with science, then we need to develop a critical apprehension of the role of science in the military industrial complex. In this, there is a critical necessity because we see that weapons are always being improved, becoming technologically more complete, and ordinary people, the working class, are dying from them.

Is science possible without ideology?

Short answer: no. Ideology, basically, is always there. What is ideology in science for me? Why is there such a myth regarding the natural sciences? Because there’s this thing – the scientific method, a set of algorithms, a set of formulae that can be applied to study an object. But what questions do we ask ourselves to solve with the scientific method? Who dictates the questions? Here’s the crux of ideology – the dictation of a question. Why, for example, do we need to finance chemical pesticides? Why aren’t alternative methods of pesticides like biological control being financed? I mean, which scientific topic is relevant is an ideology. And we need to start with that. I mean, who said that this topic is interesting? I’d even say it more exactly: who is interested, who, at the end of the day, will need the results? It’s impossible without ideology. And here it’s not important for whom you’ll be doing science.

But here there might be such a small clarification about there being an outer circle, and an inner circle of how social relations themselves are reflected in scientific research. We understand that modernity conditions the questions that you ask, but also the question of how objective research is, but it doesn’t fall under the influence of some ideological attitudes. Here, as an example from the natural sciences, it concerns biology because there sometimes appear patriarchal attitudes or economics where corporations can order a study and this study will most likely be cooked for this order.

Right now, they’re trying to form unions in private universities in the U.S. and one of the biggest reasons for this is to establish an answer to sexism in the scientific community. Well, of course, Eastern and Western sexism aren’t comparable, but nevertheless, systemic sexism still exists. It’s a lot worse in the post-Soviet community, but that’s not a compliment to the West; the compliment to them is that they’re fighting against it. Well, as for what you said, it exists. I can give examples of how I’m fighting against it – sometimes I teach a course and I definitely find the opportunity to recall the great theoretical physicist Emmy Noether. Actually, this ideology exists even now when a woman’s contribution to the scientific disciplines is diminished. There are positive changes, they’re writing popular books about this topic right now. And it’s true that all this inner dynamic negatively influences scientific technological progress. The progress of science is some amateurish ideas, and any person who, crudely speaking, can look at a situation differently can produce amateurish ideas. And often it’s connected with some personal experience. Therefore, as practice shows, science develops when a not ethnically homogenous group does it, the opposite – the more heterogenous the group, the more real the progress. And actually, there’s also racism in science when a contribution of non-Western civilizations to Western science is diminished.

Now in Ukraine and Russia we see the rise of the so-called experts: they’re inviting them to T.V. shows and asking them to comment on current events. Often these people have a scientific degree. How can we blur the distinction between science and the ideological service of the interests of the elite in such a situation?

There are experts, there’s knowledge. Basically, everyone has knowledge. But only certain people have the role of an expert. An expert is a social role and its distinction is connected with the structure of the elite. And again, Jeff Schmidt’s book is link number one to this theme. An expert is a certain scientific degree. But how can you get this degree? You have to not only do work, but do this work right, you have to have good relationships with scientists, with your commission, etc. I mean, the higher education system and the academic system in total actually works as a social filter, including for producing experts. You become an expert if the system lets you through. Accordingly, the majority of experts are the mouth and mind of the elite. In all honesty, I’m surprised that people in Ukraine and Russia trust them. In the West, Brexit and the election of Trump are a reaction against the elite, against experts. For this topic, I have a bunch of examples in America of all the experts saying, “Life is good, life is good,” when in fact it’s not entirely good. Brexit and the election of Trump are actually such a rebellion against experts. Don’t be surprised by this, experts are not only knowledgeable people, but they have a specific social function. As soon as you understand this social function, you understand why it really starts to annoy a simple everyday person. It’s a question, in essence, for the scientific community; it’s essentially the corruption of the scientific community after all. It’s that the scientific community creates a filter that serves the elite of the world. In reality, it’s corruption and this topic seriously needs to braised, why there’s such a gap between experts, scientists, and the working class. Well, and as we know, these experts don’t always tell the truth. In physics, even: for example, recently, the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman in India (Srikumar Banerjee) recently said that the probability of a malfunction at a nuclear plant is “one in infinity.” Although there have already been five in our lifetime. When an expert makes such proclamations, of course he’s speaking not as a scientist, but as an apologist for the elite. All in all, it’s very hard to draw the line between science and apologetics in the statements of public experts. But this doesn’t mean that there can’t be an institute of experts that works in the interests of society. But it’s a deliberately politicized project that cannot exist in and of itself, but should at least be a part of “civil society,” or, if it’s more effective, then a part of a working movement.

How do you feel about the popular idea that a scientist should know how to tell the story of his project – what’s called storytelling?

Here you need to distinguish two, at first glance, almost indistinguishable, but under further analysis qualitatively different understandings. The first is the popularization of scientific research, the second is storytelling.

Basically, fundamental research is financed by taxpayers, therefore, I feel that it’s our duty to plainly explain what we scientists are spending our money on. Moreover, using popular language, the research results can be effectively explained to colleagues from other specializations, which in turn can lead to the unexpected synthesis of ideas. It’s a very important professional aspect of the popularization of science. All in all, I feel good about popularization as an effective instrument within the scientific and public communication of the latest achievements.

Storytelling is the result of a dialectical synthesis of popularization (as distinguished above) with a neoliberal ideology. In a modern context, a result of scientific research isn’t considered a generally available good (even if it’s financed exclusively by the state!), but a good that has an exchange value, in other words, an object of intellectual property. With this approach, storytelling is a company in communication with society for marketing and PR campaign aimed at attracting either private or state investments. Storytelling is only just the “exhaust gas” of the large-scale commercialization of higher education that is occurring under neoliberalism. Therefore, I’m against storytelling since I feel that the results of a study financed by society should be a societal good, and not “kidnapped” property.

Denys Bondar is an Assistant Professor of Quantum Science and Technology at Tulane University.