The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When capitalism calls the shots on science

Private and public funding both play a role in research.

(iStock) (iStock)

What happens when Big Science meets Big Business? That’s one of the driving concerns behind so many of our social anxieties today: pharmaceutical companies overcharging for lifesaving medicine, Internet companies selling our data. The more the health-care and tech industries embed themselves in our lives, the higher these anxieties climb.

In the world of technology, it is corporations, rather than the public or our governments, that have been making most of the rules — rules that have had significant effects on our democracy, our privacy and our society. To many of us, this kind of corporate control of technology-driven social change feels new and overwhelming, and in many ways it certainly is. But capitalist enterprises have a long history of involvement in the development of science and technology, a history that shows us both the pitfalls and the benefits of such a connection.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when modern science was just beginning to emerge, the most creative thinkers were often employed in the private sector. In that transitional era between the medieval and the modern, universities were not yet places of scientific innovation, and scientists and inventors such as Galileo Galilei used commerce as an on-ramp to experimental freedom. Galileo famously hawked his telescopic inventions around Italy before eventually finding a royal patron who allowed him freedom to pursue his scientific research.

In England at the time, patronage could not run through the crown because Elizabeth I did not employ philosophers or mathematicians, so English innovators generally sought private funding.

That was the case for the best scientific mind in Elizabethan England: Thomas Harriot. He never published his scientific work, so he missed out on the fame that came to his continental contemporaries, even though in many ways he was their equal. To take just a few examples: He found the law of falling motion and used a telescope to map the moon independently of Galileo; he produced a fully symbolic algebra before René Descartes; and he discovered the law of refraction before Willebrord Snellius.

One of the reasons Harriot didn’t publish early in his career was commercial secrecy. He got his first job in 1583, working as Sir Walter Raleigh’s navigational adviser, during Raleigh’s preparation for the first English trading colony in what is today the United States. Then as now, many considered international trade vital to a country’s survival, and for Elizabethan England, such trade required ships and trained sailors. When it came to the scientific research that made seafaring safer, capitalists such as Raleigh naturally wanted to protect their investment in such knowledge.

Consequently, Harriot received no public credit for being the first to provide mariners with an accurate table showing how far they needed to sail in any particular direction if they wanted to change their latitude or longitude by a given amount. He received no credit, either, for his cutting-edge tabulations of the position of the North Star and its use in calculating latitude, his advice on how to correct for the vagaries of the magnetic compass and the effect on astronomical readings of the height of a ship, as well as many other mathematically and astronomically based innovations that made sailing more accurate. (Today, many of these kinds of calculations underlie modern navigational technologies.)

The one thing Harriot did publish was his report on Raleigh’s “Virginia,” which was in today’s North Carolina. As well as helping the English ships arrive safely in America, Harriot had been, in effect, the chief scientist, linguist and diplomat in the first colony. The section of his report discussing the North Carolina Algonquians and their language and culture remain classics of early American ethnology. Nevertheless, in accordance with his brief from Raleigh, his report’s primary purpose was to list the natural resources that might interest traders and colonists.

Raleigh’s American colonies failed, but the work Harriot did for him helped open the way to others’ ventures, which not only helped secure England’s longevity but also destroyed indigenous people and their way of life. That record now taints Raleigh’s legacy, although at the time he did not intend or foresee this destruction. (His role in the brutal English conquest of Catholic Ireland was another matter, tied, for Raleigh at least, more closely to Protestant religious zeal than trade.) Later, however, the English considered it a very small price to pay for “progress” and innovation.

That mix of scientific investigation, globalization and unchecked commerce calls attention to the potentially devastating potency of such a nexus. We are seeing it today, not only in relation to Big Pharma and Internet companies but also in the environmental destruction that often follows when short-term business interests dominate political agendas on such issues as mining, deforestation and pollution control and in ongoing geopolitical disruption fostered most notably by the inadequately regulated arms trade.

History shows that we should have seen it coming. In the early 1600s, for example, the East India and Virginia Companies were formed to expedite English trade in the New World, but with investor profits as their sole goal, those corporations soon turned to ruthless means, including war and the slave trade.

Harriot’s career also offers another cautionary note about the dangers of profit-driven or unregulated science and exploration. Although he honed his mathematical and astronomical skills while working for Raleigh, he did his best scientific work under a different patron: the wealthy earl of Northumberland, who wanted to sponsor scientific research for its own sake. It was then that Harriot made the kinds of breakthroughs in pure science and mathematics on which his legacy rests. It was blue-sky research: science just for the love of it.

In our time, governments have been major sponsors of such open-ended research, so it is concerning that in 2015, while U.S. investment in R&D reached record levels, the lion’s share (69 percent) came from business, while the government’s share was at a historic low of 23 percent. Federal spending has since increased slightly, although investment in basic research is falling again.

In making political and commercial decisions about funding for science, it is worth remembering that this sort of “pure” research tends to cycle back into the economy and lead to major breakthroughs, because much of it ultimately has technological applications. Historically, entrepreneurs have made many of these breakthroughs, such as electric lights, telephones, computers and medical technologies. They, in turn, have drawn on others’ curiosity-driven research.

As a society, we need to invest in both kinds of science, pure and applied, and we need both private and public funding. But we also need to get the balance right, and to have some control — through elected officials, public universities and policymaking — over how science and technology are developed and applied.