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Is the privatisation of science in the public interest?

Beverley Gibbs and Alex Smith disagree

Dear Alex,

I suspect the first benefit people would think of that privatised science offers is the increased amount of money that’s made available to carry out science.

In 2010 the Office for National Statistics revealed that of all the UK’s scientific R&D expenditure, almost two-thirds came from private industry – a big addition to the investment available from an increasingly empty public purse. 

That most of the results of this R&D are kept private until they can be made public through commercial products is the financial incentive that releases upwards of £16bn investment.

So, on the basis that more scientific research takes place and much of it eventually becomes public through the market, privatisation can be in the public interest.

However, I’m drawing something of a straw man here. The public-private boundary is actually very porous. For example, a couple of years ago GlaxoSmithKline opened up its Tres Cantos research campus in Spain to a range of organisations to collaborate on big challenges such as malaria and drug-resistant TB.

Money has been released through the foundation, previously-private data has been shared widely and new joint projects started with an aim of producing drugs for a neglected disease.

Isn’t that in the public interest?



Dear Beverley,

Your opening salvo is to suggest that the public interest is best served by a ‘privatised science’ capable of promoting increased business investment in R&D.  The results of such research then ‘become public’ when they are commercialised and taken to market. 

You rely on a seductive logic that presents as self-evident the ‘benign’ promise of the market to provide financial incentives (the profit motive) that encourage private businesses and corporations to invest in scientific research.  But how comfortable should we, as a wider public, be with this idea?

All debates must begin with a definition of terms.  I would want to challenge any argument that equates – no matter how implicitly – publics with markets. 

It is difficult to excite the public imagination about science with an argument that foregrounds questions of funding and profit to the exclusion of other considerations, including those that define the social benefits of science in less utilitarian terms.

Market values reinforce and reward our worst habits and instincts, as individuals and as consumers.  They are also hostile to the public values of science, which embody practices of collaboration and conversation.  These are poorly served by the privatisation of science, which is most certainly not in the public interest.



Dear Alex,

Your conflation of funding and profit is interesting.  I previously mentioned the leverage that is commonly sought between investment and profit in the private sector.  However, these are not concepts that live solely in commerce.

Scientific research in universities – perhaps the classic archetype of public science – is not quite as open as I feel you imply. 

Research is frequently stored behind expensive paywalls and intellectual property rights regimes are common in academia. Both of these act to make supposedly public science more private. So, where is our boundary?

Clearly, some markets work better than others in realising the public interest and we have to consider public value-for-money as an important element, albeit difficult to measure in the research context.  

However, ‘the public interest’ is in itself a very seductive term, suggestive of a pre-existing set of priorities that we all agree upon, making it straightforward to decide whether this is realised most effectively through public or private means.

The troublesome path many technologies take towards society indicates different, competing, evolving public interests. In low carbon energy for example – when and how does a wider sense of the public good trump the local needs and preferences of host communities?



Dear Beverley,

Defining, and disposing of, the public interest should not be anything other than a messy, debatable business, demanding hard intelligence from an educated citizenry capable of conceiving of interests other than maximising profit. 

That is why, over the centuries, a variety of institutions – including Parliament and the media – have evolved so that divergent publics can engage with one another and debate larger questions of what constitutes their common, shared interests.

This is the promise of a public science, which places emphasis on the wider obligations of science to publics conceived as having larger, non-economic (that is, non-consumer) interests at stake, on questions of inequality, justice and the environment.  It is right that advocates of a privatised science also contribute to debates over what constitutes the public good. 

But Parliament and other institutions should never abdicate to the market their responsibility to take these important questions seriously. 

After all, your final question – about if and when larger ideas of the public good should trump local needs and preferences – is exactly the kind that cannot be answered in the marketplace alone.  It can only ever be answered messily, through debate and dialogue between those committed to the making of a public science.



Dear Alex,

Conducting some scientific research within market mechanisms does not have to stand in opposition to an effective public sphere. Indeed, I would suggest that the effectiveness of public debate among all institutions is limited until we have an idea of what a scientific or technological development looks like in its fullness – who owns it, how it will be implemented, who profits, who will benefit and who will lose out.

The much drawn-upon debates about genetically modified food in theUKare rich in these kinds of arguments, as are many of the concerns around low-carbon energy technologies. To try to publicly debate the nature of science and technology without recognising its commercial features is having only half the conversation.

In recognising the value of these debates I am of course acknowledging the trade-off I started with – that something public is lost when private funding is leveraged.  However, instead of dismissing this as entirely undesirable, my position is that the value offered to society is too great to turn away from.

Instead, let’s discuss where the public-private boundary should be, how innovation can be governed to maximise social benefit and how to ensure and protect the value achieved from the limited public funding available.



Dear Beverley,

I welcome your belated recognition of a role for public funding in science.  Indeed, you appear to go further and suggest that the market should only fund ‘some’ scientific research. 

But you conclude with the contradictory point that just limited public funding is available, against which private funding must presumably be ‘leveraged’. 

This confusion is a consequence of your wider argument in favour of the privatisation of science, the logic of which seeks to sideline debate over the social benefits of science while sanctioning cuts in public funding in favour of the commercial exploitation of scientific and technological advances.

Your argument clearly demonstrates that the privatisation of science is not in the public interest for a very simple reason: it reduces all such questions to one of money and money alone.  But science is bigger than this, a system of knowledge that promises much more than just the development of new technologies. 

Science offers a radical way of ‘seeing’ the world, of imagining and apprehending it.  This is an intellectual inheritance that belongs to all of us.  It should be used to benefit the widest possible publics we can conceive. 

Instead of more privatisation and the erosion of the public sphere, what we need today is a bold and unequivocal reaffirmation of public science – science pursued, with public money, in the broadest possible public interest. 



Dr Alex Smith
Dr Alex Smith is Senior Leverhulme Research Fellow in Sociology at Warwick University as well as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Sociology in Kansas University.
Beverley Gibbs
Beverley Gibbs is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, working closely with the multidisciplinary 'Making Science Public' Leverhulme programme.
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