Category Archives: politics

Call for submissions: Science and the Left

BIS officesFront of BIS offices. They have at least taken down the photo of Richard Branson.

New Left Project is compiling a short series on science and the left (whatever ‘science’ or ‘the left’ might be).

We welcome writers of any level of experience and from any educational/professional background. You might want to offer personal experience as an academic or activist, or dig into a piece of history, policy or philosophy.

It’s sometimes argued that the left has a science problem. Equally, many argue it’s more a matter of science’s increasing lack of engagement with left wing politics which is of concern; e.g. Naomi Klein suggesting the Tyndell Centre is particularly courageous in taking on the rest of the scientific establishment for serving the interests of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

Historian Gary Wersky predicts a third wave of Marxist science – and Zac Goldsmith suggests (rather dubiously) we can see it expressed in Sense About Science – but could there be such thing as a scientific left in the 21st century? Should there be?

Pieces might address these issues or more, including the scientific establishment’s relationship with the arms trade or oil industry, science and trade unions, science in the mass media, science education, the history of movements for radical science/ radical engineering/ radical statistics, issues of race, class and gender, techno-utopianism and the left, or the politics of ‘geek chic’.

Submissions should be between 1500-3000 words. You should pitch pieces at an interested but non-expert audience; explaining any jargon and historical background where necessary and providing links and/ or citations to sources. As ever with NLP, we welcome articles, interviews and book/cultural reviews. We’re also open to other forms such as images, poetry, fiction or archival material. More notes on our about page.

Send completed pieces to by 28th October 2013.

If you want to pitch/ discuss an idea in advance, please do but try to do this as soon as possible so you can still submit the full piece for the deadline.


John Hayes MP and the bourgeois


Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton

A Life of Galileo: What Brecht can teach us about the public ownership of science

HSBC Stratford upon Avon

This post first appeared on New Left Project.

The central tourist strip of Stratford-upon-Avon is not the sort of place you expect to find much Marxism. It’s all a bit Ye Olde Costa Coffee, Anne Hathaway fudge, postcards, postcards, postcards and pink fridge magnets quoting As You Like It. The most subversive it gets is a pile of Terry Deary’s Terrible Tudors in the front of Waterstone’s (i.e. not very).

But Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s Swan Theatre, and Roxana Silbert’s production of Mark Ravenhill’s new translation puts the themes of class struggle front and centre.

On the surface, it’s a play about the clash between science and religion, but the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts manages to miss the point by a heliocentric system or three when his review complains of a post-Dawkins boredom with such “hectoring atheism”. The point of the play isn’t to privilege scientific thinking over others, it’s a critique of the way science can be captured by particular interests, a tale not of a hero but a complex, flawed man who wants to give science and its power over it to people and (crucially) improve science by listening to the people too.

The play is very much a product of the late 1940s, re-written by Brecht in 1947 in the still-blazing light of Hiroshima. The Galileo portrayed here is far from heroic. He’s patronising, arrogant, manipulative and happy to sell his work to not only the church, but the military too, if it only gives him some time to quietly peruse the stars. (He’s also extremely dismissive of women, but that might be more the play itself than a deliberately crafted negative character trait). Even the basis for the moment of technological determinism often cited as an expression of Brecht’s Marxism in the play – the invention of the telescope – is the product of theft. The play may start with Galileo naked, but he makes no pretence at purity. As he exclaims to an old pupil in his final speech “Welcome to the gutter, brother in science”.

More to the point, the play is much more about the distribution of power than the doctrines of Catholicism. It’s the organised in organised religion that’s of importance here, and how this may be all-too-often enacted to perpetuate social inequality. The church’s role in the play is largely a symbol for hegemonic power, part of Brecht’s preoccupation with science for the few compared to science for the many. Galileo wants to publish his work in vernacular Italian instead of Latin (the court philosophers laugh “the argument will lose brilliance”) and argues for the worth of the knowledge and skills of his working class collaborators. Later, after Galileo is threatened with torture and renounces his earlier work as heresy, one of these workers turns to the others to complain: “He never paid you properly for your work. You couldn’t buy a pair of trousers or publish your own work.” Galileo was exploitative too, part of the character’s fashioning as an anti-hero.

In many ways, the science is there for symbolic purposes too. Galileo’s story is picked above any other case study of attempted rebellion not just because of his relationship with the church but because his work displaced the idea the Pope sat at the centre of the universe. The order of the heavens Galileo science speaks of is used to reflect upon orders on Earth, a metaphor which runs thickly throughout the play and was especially drawn out by the set design for the National Theatre’s 2006 production. There is much talk of being unsettled and the people not knowing their “place”, as this particular thread of the scientific revolution is used as an extended allegory for possible social ones.

There is, importantly, still the worry that scientists themselves will become too powerful and simply create new hierarchies based on their own claims to expertise. But I think Brecht’s keen to avoid the suggestion we replace religious authority with a technocratic one. This is why Galileo is shown up for exploiting his workers and we are continually told of the use of the worth of listening to people to make better science. When Galileo’s old pupil feels let down near the end of the play and exclaims angrily “Unhappy the land that has no heroes”. Galileo replies humbly “No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. Our scientist is an anti-hero not just for dramatic reasons or historical accuracy, but because Brecht wants to argue for collective rather than individual agency when it comes to understanding our world and working out how to make it better. The rallying cry of this play is to build a science and technology for the people, by the people, not simply defer to experts.

Perhaps befitting the astronomy-based talk of a topsy-turvy world, this new RSC production is a highly carnivalesque affair. At the start of the second half, a singing monk strips to reveal a fat suit over a tuxedo, in which he dances in along with the rest of the chorus, also in playful fancy dress, bathed in a pink light which runs through the set’s blue graph paper backdrop. This street festival then turns into a ball, with Galileo in shiny shoes, his daughter in a gown to announce her engagement to a wealthy landowner and clerics in glittery animal masks. Throughout, the historical span of the play is connected with a chorus who set the scenes by sing into large microphones. Ian McDiarmid, playing Galileo, seems to dance around the stage as the boyish scientific excitement comes almost entirely from his hips.

One might be tempted to critique this as simply licensed carnival – moments of sanctioned freedom to distract you from everyday oppression – especially as you leave the theatre and return to central Stratford-upon-Avon, walking past the mosaic of Shakespeare’s face adorning the local HSBC on the way to the station, as well as the Anne Hathaway fudge, fridge magnets and collected works of Terry Deary. Or when you read that the RSC have announced a new partnership deal with BP. Indeed, the BP deal invites us to think about one of the plays key themes: the corrupting role of patronship. More relevent, perhaps, is the role of BP in university-based scientific research and or science education, which invite us to consider the ways in which the play’s are still relevant. As Galileo bitterly declares in his closing speech: “Surely the purpose of science is to ease human hardship. If scientists follow the orders of those in power, if they store up knowledge for the sake of storing it up, then science will be crippled and your new machines will bring new forms of oppression.”

The RSC production ends with a nice touch: a young scientist throws an apple at a small child, telling her to learn to use her eyes. Apples have iconic status in the history of knowledge. Newton told the story of his apple not just because it’s a fruit that falls, but because it echoed Adam’s loss of knowledge in Eden; Newton had now got it this knowledge back. There’s a crucial difference, however, between whether Newton and other scientists felt such knowledge was now theirs, or whether it was seen as something for the whole of humankind. (Apparently Newton also thought he was no coincidence he shared a birthday with Christ, make of that what you will). We should expect scientists to share their work and be public accountable, but non-scientists should be proactive in the processes of opening it up too: stand up for the public funding of science and actively go forth and ask questions of professional researchers and their managers so you might be part of their research. Work with scientists and put them to work because other people already are. Check they’re building machines for liberation, not opression.

Go on. Be inspired by the possibilities. Bite into that apple.

JD Bernal: the communist crystallographer

Uni of Sussex

A small sign of political protest at the University of Sussex this morning.

I was supposed to go to the JD Bernal Lecture at Birkbeck College a few weeks back; given this year by David Willetts. Except it was cancelled after a perceived threat of “disruptive” political protests. So I found myself with a free evening. I had another invite that evening, to an event at my old employer, Imperial College, celebrating their ongoing relationship with EDF. Or a mate was giving a talk about Spanish communism. In the end, though, I decided the best way to pay tribute to Bernal was to curl up with a few books about him.

Here are my notes.

John Desmond Bernal was born in 1901 in County Tipperary. He went to boarding school in England, then a scholarship to Cambridge in 1919, studying maths and science, followed by doctoral work with William Henry Bragg at the Royal Institution. He moved back to Cambridge in 1927 as lecturer in structural crystallography, becoming assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934.

Bernal was one of those scientists people feel the need to say “he never won a Nobel” about, presumably because maybe he could have. It’s sometimes argued that he just spred his expertise a bit too thin. He was largely recognised as a bit of a general clever-clogs, picking up the the nick-name “sage” at university. A couple of his PhD students – Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – did win Nobels though, as had his old supervisor, Bragg. Rosalind Franklin worked with him for a bit, as did Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and Aaron Klug. So he had a bit of Nobel shine around him. But it’s maybe inappropriate to lead a discussion of Bernal with a list of famous people he worked with though. He was, after all, as famous for his socialism as his science.

At school he had been rather insulated from politics. But from early 1920, he started attending Socialist Society meetings at Cambridge and, as a PhD student living in Bloomsbury later that decade, he joined both the Holborn Labour Party and the Communist Party (it wasn’t especially remarkable to be a member of both at the time). He marched in the General Strike in 1926 and was supposed to have been left very moved by the experience of walking though London streets left at a relative standstill. But his years in Bloomsbury, if anything, weren’t especially inspiring politically, and it was in the 30s back in Cambridge that he got more active. There’s a story that he was galvanized by the Russian delegation’s contribution to a major history of science conference held at the Science Museum in 1931, but I tend to think reports of damascene moments are worth taking with a pinch of salt. Some said Bernal eventually took to Marxism with a religious fever, a replacement for the Catholicism of his youth (a point others also have made about his adoption of Freud). Again, I’m sceptical when I read people are religious in their political zeal, it just seems a bit patronising. I don’t know though, maybe Bernal was. Apparently he wasn’t strictly a “card carrying” commie, having dropped his actual card sometime in 1933 and not bothering to replace it (see Fred Steward’s chapter in Swann & Aprahamian).

Bernal wasn’t unusual as a politically active left wing scientist in 1930s Britain. Eric Hobswam cites CP Snow as saying if you were to poll a couple of hundred of the brightest young physicist in the mid 1930s, you’d have found around fifteen communists, a good fifty more on left and a hundred admitting to leftie sympatheises, with the rest neutral apart from the odd handful on the right (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xii). Bernal could be seen as at the forefront of what some would call “red science” in three ways: the organization of scientific workers, part of political mobalisation of science against war and as one of the more influential prophets for the potential of science for progress (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xi).

One of the outcomes of they way Bernal was not only a scientist interested in politics but someone who felt the two should be connected was his 1939 book The Social Function of Science. The book paid strong attention to the way resources were allocated to various parts of science and technology had become crucial to the development of nations. It was highly influential, instrumental in the development of the social studies of science. As Chris Freeman summarises, for Bernal science is the most important thing humans do and so, in both short and long term, it’s own justification. It provides such a huge capacity for social change and improvement of peoples lives. It just had to be planned out in the right way. At the heart of Bernal’s book – and his political legacy – is a call to organise this great human power of science, and to organise it to serve the many, not the few. His particular inspirations and approaches contained, arguably, somewhat of an over-idealisation of USSR’s particular way of planning science by Bernal. But that doesn’t mean his central desire to try to organise science is necessarily wrong, just that we might disagree about the best way to go about it. There are a range of ways we might organise science, and a range of ways we might be explicit and hope to involve others in this process.

Freeman agrees with Bernal’s enthusiasm for ambitious well-organised use of science and technology for human welfare, but stresses need to be complemented with equally explicitly commitment to promotion of open critical debate (see also Freeman’s Vega lecture on Bernal). In reference to Bernal’s much publicsised support of Lynsenco, Freeman argues that the best way to criticise and expose reactionary ideas in science remains to point out they are unscientific in public, not to rely on political labels. Bernal’s view of organising science was basically “a vision of brains interlinked to form a complex hierarchical system” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: 129), and that’s where the list of “great names” at the start sort of fit. Bernal venerated expertise, or at least he had a strong belief the benevolence of the scientific expert when it came to distributing the power to make decisions about science. In many ways this is what separates him from some contemporary social studies of science. It’s also one of the (many) ways his rather scientific and technological utopian approach diverges from greener left wing politics.

In 1938 Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck, but at the onset of the Second World War he was pressed into service. Apparently John Anderson (that’s Anderson as in Anderson shelters) wanted Bernal as a scientific adviser “even if he is as red as the flames of Hell”. Together with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Bernal gave analysis of bombing a quantitative basis, which helped make a case against exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of Allied bombing, going on – with Patrick Blackett – to advise against the bombing of several German cities as a waste of manpower and resources. Later, Bernal and Zuckerman were seconded to General Mountbatten’s D-Day planning team, and a strong friendship sprang up between Bernal and Mountbatten.

After the war, Bernal resumed his professorial duties at Birkbeck, setting up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948. Post war, although apparently he “helped put the S in UNESCO” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xxiii) his politics sometimes got him into trouble with the scientific establishment. He was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science after speech he gave in Moscow critiquing the nature and control of science in the capitalist west, and Julian Huxley refused to work with communist scientists. Bernal was also an active peace campaigner, involved in the World Peace Council. When the British Peace Committee attempted to host the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a number of delegates ended up stranded in London, including one Pablo Picasso. Bernal organised a party in his flat for them, and Picasso drew a mural on the wall of Bernal’s sitting room. Bernal later gave it to the ICA, and it’s currently at the Wellcome Collection (only a few blocks from Birkbeck).

I haven’t really gone into his personal life here, but Hobsbawn, in his LRB review of Andrew Brown’s The Sage of Science described Bernal as having a “purple” approach to sex to complement his otherwise redder characteristics. Brown says Bernal and his wife took to their open marriage “with gusto” (pdf, see page 65). You can google around a bit for more. He had a few kids. His mum sounded pretty cool. Read the first few pages of Brown’s book for details on her. There are a few portraits of him in the national collection and a plaque outside his old flat in Camden. He died in 1971 and is buried in South London.

So there you go. John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971). A scientist, a leftie, a pacifist, a lover and a fighter. “Red as the flames of Hell”, but mates with Mountbatten. Not a card-carrying communist, but no less an enthusiastic one. You can make up your own mind as to what you think he’d have made of the threat of a protest over higher education funding, or of a lecture in his name being given by a Tory science minister. Birkbeck have published the text of the talk Willetts would have given, so you can make up your mind what Bernal would have thought of that too.