John Marshall

Captive Science

(January 1935)

Source: New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, p.28.
(John Marshall was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Scientific Research And Social Needs
by Julian Huxley
288 pp. London. Watts & Co. 7-6.

Capitalism was the father of modern science. Without the mighty stimulus of capitalist enterprise the sciences would have grown as slowly in the western world as in China or India. Conversely, capitalism itself could not have developed its productive powers and mastered the world without the aid of scientific theory and technique.

Even in its heroic days, the bourgeoisie was the exploiter as well as the patron of the sciences. But on the whole bourgeois society provided a rich soil for the growth and cultivation of one science after another from astronomy to biology. Today the interests of the capitalist class no longer coincide with the main line of scientific progress. The sciences and capitalist society are travelling in opposite directions. While the sciences advance at double-quick time, capitalism stagnates and declines. At every step the further progress of the various sciences is retarded by insurmountable social obstacles that lie athwart their path.

The pure sciences farthest removed from the pressing concerns and material needs of capitalist society can proceed at an accelerated pace for an indefinite period, as the achievements of Einstein and Rutherford in the fields of mathematical physics and subatomic research bear witness. But all the sciences are subjected to tremendous strains and pressures as soon as any attempt is made to apply the results of their researches to the welfare of the masses on a social scale.

The relations between scientific research and social needs provide the point of departure for this admirable survey of scientific activity in England by Julian Huxley, the noted British biologist. At the behest of the British Boadcasting Company Huxley toured the most important scientific institutions to ascertain what the research workers in various fields were doing and to what extent the results of their researches were being used to serve the needs of the English people. He returned with a wealth of interesting information about the different kinds of research now being undertaken and an increased insight into the nature of science. He also brought back a mass of evidence demonstrating how capitalist society is stunting the growth of science; perverting its accomplishments; restricting the scope of its applications; and withholding its benefits from the majority of the people.

British agronomists and biologists assured Huxley, for example, that they could easily double the amount of food grown in England with the present scientific knowledge at their command.

“But why double the number of sheep,” they asked, “if sheep prices fall so low as to ruin the farmer? What is the good of inventing new brands of wheat that make it possible to grow more bushels per acre or to push wheat cultivation nearer the pole, if the world’s wheat producers already have vast surpluses they cannot dispose of and are clamoring for restriction of output?”

They are also confronted with the spectre of conflicts within the Empire and the problem or the balance between agriculture and industry.

“What will happen to New Zealand mutton and Australian beef if we double our own livestock, or Canadian wheat and apples, if we increase our home output? And how will England receive payment for its manufacturing exports and foreign capital investments if England becomes agriculturally self-sufficient?”

While the agricultural scientist is beset by these paralyzing economic contradictions, millions of Englishmen must remain without enough food, or the right kind of food, to eat.

Huxley heard the same story wherever he went. In construction much progress was being made in the standardization and testing of materials and in several departments that catered to the comfort of the wealthy and upper middle classes. At the same time, despite the present building boom, over one-fifth of the population live in slums unfit for human habitation. And the technicians lament,

“We can build excellent houses for everyone but to let them to working class families at a profitable rent is another story.”

Capitalism is compelled to keep the greater part of the treasures of scientific research behind locked doors to which only the wealthy have keys. The scientists have solved the main problems of a healthy diet so that they now know what vitamins and mineral salts are needed for daily bodily fuel and wear-and-tear. Nevertheless, as physical measurements and the prevalence of rickets prove, a large section of the English people suffers from chronic deficiency in one or another of these food factors. “The reason for this,” says Huxley, “is partly public ignorance, but it is largely sheer poverty.”

Huxley’s investigations expose the hollowness of many myths propagated by the idealistic philosophers of science. The tender solicitude that capitalist society is supposed to show for pure research is hardly apparent in England. There, according to Huxley, “most of the money put up by the government for research goes for the practical needs of industry and war.” That is, to increase and safeguard the profits of the capitalist class.

The same proportions hold good for the total annual expenditures. Industrial research accounts for nearly half the total amount; research for the fighting services takes one half of what is spent on industry ; research connected with agriculture, forestry, and fishing take a fifth or sixth of the total; medical and health research about an eight or less. Research in all other branches, including basic research, amounts to less than one-twelfth of the total. Those critics who assert that pure research will be stifled in the noxious utilitarian atmosphere of a socialist society must admit that English capitalism does not set a very high mark to aim at. Less than one-twelfth of its budget on pure research and a paltry five or six million pounds a year on all research.

Scientific activity under capitalism bears all the stigmata of capitalist enterprise. Ideally international, its researches are conscripted to serve the interests of English capital. Even in the universities much scientific work is being carried on in secrecy and the results unpublished. In one government-aided institution, Huxley was told that it would be against the national industrial interests even to let it be known that a lot of research was being carried on, much less to describe any of it! The same secrecy and suppression accorded to patented processes surrounds the results of pure research, which are theoretically the common property of all scientists.

Those philosophers who make a sharp disjunction between pure and applied science will derive no support from Huxley. In an interesting discussion with P.M.S. Blackett, the English physicist, he brings out how tenuous and shifting the dividing line between these two sides of scientific activity is. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the most general and abstract of all physical laws, was first formulated by Carnot as the result of his study of that most concrete of all objects, the steam engine. It was no historical accident, then, that the science of thermodynamics was developed in the early 19th century when there was a pressing social-economic need to increase the efficiency of the steam engine rather than in the early 17th century, when neither the steam engine nor the need existed.

Huxley uncovered an equally striking example of the interplay between pure and applied science in the textile industry. Laue’s pioneer work in the analysis of the intimate structure of crystals by means of the X-ray had found immediate industrial application in the X-raying of steel, paints, glass, etc. The usual procedure of research from the laboratory of the pure scientist out into industrial practise was then reversed by Astbury. While studying the woolen fibre for the textile manufacturers at Leeds by methods based on Laue’s work, he discovered that the wool fibre was an exceptionally favorable object for studying the intimate structure of protein molecules. His findings have not only led to many improvements in woolen manufacture but have actually opened up an important new branch of fundamental biological research.

Huxley touches on many other matters of interest to a Marxist, the dependence of the development of pure science on the state of industrial technique, the decisive influence of social, political, and economic forces in shaping the character and determining the course of science, etc. Like his grandfather, Huxley represents the finest type of bourgeois scientist. He carries over the habits of accurate observation and reliable reporting from the biological to the social field. Unfortunately, he also trails with him a belief in eugenics and population control as the sovereign remedy for curing the ills of capitalist society. An acquaintance with that science of society known as Marxism might have saved him from such puerile conclusions. But those we can attribute, among other reasons, to that backward state of the social sciences about which Huxley himself complains in this volume.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006