1940s >> 1946 >> no-504-august-1946

Are Scientists Free?

When the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, it awakened many workers to a new interest in scientific discoveries. They have been forced to realise, as never before, how intimately these discoveries affect their daily lives. A a result of this, a spate of “Science for the Masses” articles has appeared in the popular press. Those written by John Langdon-Davies are a regular feature of the Daily Mail.


One of them, “Science Can’t Stay Chained” (6/5/46), reveals a state of mind in the writer that must be typical of many scientists to-day. It is becoming more and more evident that once a discovery has left the laboratory it enters the sphere of power politics and commercial interests. Such has been the fate of atomic energy and penicillin. Of course, there is nothing new about it. It has been going on ever since capitalism came into existence. To-day we are witnessing the culmination of that process, and the scientific worker has no more control over his product than any other member of the working class. This is true of the scientist who is not already employed by some private industrial concern, or by the State, an increasingly rare specimen nowadays.


Mr. Langdon-Davies is very worried about it all. “Scientific discovery is being mishandled,” he says. “The danger is not what the scientists are doing, but the use being put to their work by half-educated politicians.”


As an example of the scientists’ loss of freedom, he mentions the recent case of Dr. May, who was sentenced to ten years penal servitude for revealing secrets of the atomic bomb. Mr. Langdon-Davies is not aware that the degree of education attained by politicians, like the grammatical errors of scientific writers, is quite irrelevant to the issue. These men are the servants of the capitalist state machine. They must serve the interests of the class it represents; interests that have slight regard for human rights, including the ‘‘right” of the scientist to share the fruits of his research with his colleagues in other lands.; interests that must continue to dominate society, so long as it is based on private ownership of the means of life.


Mr. Langdon-Davies reveals that penicillin is a monopoly of Britain and America. Referring to the recent fulminations of the Minister of Supply on the subject, he remarks: “He did not tell us that penicillin production is being kept a secret, just like the atomic bomb . . . if the French want to save babies from blindness, or the Russians to reduce the ravages of venereal disease, or the Norwegians to combat pneumonia, they must start their penicillin researches almost from scratch, or, of course, buy from us or the Americans.”


Again, “Penicillin is a joint concern between certain private firms and the Ministry of Supply ” and “will soon be sold to the taxpayer at a profit to somebody.”
Where stands our humanitarian scientist in relation to all this? However disinterested he may be in his efforts to alleviate human suffering, when the results of his research have become a commercial proposition he has no further say in the matter.


If we turn to the industrial field we find many examples of this. One of the earliest was the famous safety lamp, which, we are told, has been a great boon to the miners. Sir Humphry Davy refused to take out a patent for this invention; claiming that his sole object was to serve the cause of humanity. Did it make the pits safe for the miners when it was introduced? Quite the opposite. “Deeper and more dangerous seams were worked, and accidents actually increased in number.” (See “The Town Labourer,” by J. L. & B. Hammond, p. 25.) Nowadays, the introduction of safety devices in industry often results in a speed-up of machinery, thus forcing the operatives to work harder than they did before.


To return to Mr. Langdon-Davies, his solution to the scientists’ political problems is anything but scientific. He speaks vaguely of some form of public control, “or, at least, reference to public opinion,” whatever that may mean. Remove the secrecy and we shall all be happy. He doesn’t tell us how all this is to be done in the face of capitalist rivalries. He does not tell us because he cannot (and neither can anyone else).


The title of the article we have been discussing has greater significance than the writer intended. It is true that Science, or rather the immense productive forces that Science has released, cannot remain for ever chained and confined by the capitalist control of production. These forces, continually strive to break the capitalist fetters that bind them. Economic crises and war are the results of this strife, and it will one day force the scientists, along with the rest of the working class, to adopt the only possible solution, the abolition of private property and the establishment of a society where the needs of men and women will be the sole criterion for the production of goods and services. A society where scientists will be free to pursue their studies without restraint, secure in the knowledge that their discoveries can no longer bring disaster on mankind. In a word, the Socialist solution.