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The neutrality of science

By Rakhal Gaitonde

If science were objective and neutral, why would there be such a paucity of research on occupational safety and health? Is it because of the '10/90 gap', where 10% of the population's problems command 90% of the research funds, with the majority - mostly the poor and marginalised -- getting only 10% of all funding for its problems?

That science is objective and 'neutral' is the basis on which it is respected and trusted. However, having trained as a scientist and having worked for several years with people 'outside' the mainstream, like rural daily wage labourers, unorganised sector workers, pollution-impacted communities, etc, I am beginning to question this assumption of neutrality.

While the quest for evidence, for rigour, the question of peer review, irreverence for authority, and 'expert opinion', as witnessed in evidence-based medicine, are all extremely progressive aspects of the scientific endeavour, most of us focus only on the 'methods' part of the scientific quest and showcase rigorous methods as the hallmark of 'good and neutral' science.

There are numerous decisions that need to be taken before and after choosing an 'appropriate method'; in fact, the 'method' is just one in a series of decisions a scientist must make. These decisions include:

  • Choice of subject for research.
  • Choice of specific methods/tools for the research.
  • The way one disseminates and presents one's findings.

It is the sum of all these decisions that defines the usefulness of science to problems relevant to the people.

The question of neutrality arises when the choices an individual or group of scientists makes regarding each of the above aspects of research consistently neglect a particular section of people -- like the labouring masses, particularly in the unorganised sector -- especially when this section is at the receiving end of similar decisions in all fields; when this section wields neither economic, social nor political power. Science loses its neutrality the moment it loses its capacity to introspect and be honest about what it sees, rather than what it is pressurised to see.

Doing research

Choice of subject for research: It is well known that some subjects as well as some ways of seeing subjects are more privileged as areas of research than others. The reasons for these could range from availability of funding, funding agency pressure, corporate pressure, editorial policies of 'big' journals, lack of support from the general scientific community, and sometimes the simple fact of not having the theoretical models or tools to understand an issue adequately.

The fact of skewing research towards those in society with more money, power and social standing is well recognised by the existence and documentation of the '10/90 gap'. This is a recognition of the fact that about 10% of the world's population's problems commands 90% of the research funds; thus 90% of the world's population gets only 10% of all funding for its problems.

The important point is that there seems to be a consistency of the type of subjects thus neglected, and it is this consistent neglect in researching/addressing issues affecting a larger section of society -- mostly the poor and the marginalised -- that erodes the very basis of the assumption of neutrality in the scientific endeavour.

Similarly, whether one chooses to disaggregate one's data on the basis of caste, gender, socio-economic status, etc, all invariably reflect the overall awareness and perspective of the individual researcher and her/his group, and the development of methods, not necessarily the lack of plausibility of the association.

The methods chosen:It is well recognised that research tools have been developed to pick up or measure only particular types of 'truth'. Thus, quantitative instruments work best with numbers, qualitative work best with feelings and relationships and so on. The choice of one with the exclusion of others gives only a partial picture. While this in itself is not problematic, it is the honouring of one set of methods as more 'scientific' and more real than others, and privileging one over the other that is problematic. And this has happened consistently with the privileging of quantitative methods over all others, including qualitative methods such as anthropological, sociological, etc, in the field of health research.

How does one disseminate?: Does the researcher see her/his responsibility ending with publication of the report in an esoteric journal, on an open source website on the Net, or actually creating lay literature adaptations and presenting the findings to people, communities, unions, etc? It is important to assess what the commitment of the researcher is to the people who have contributed to the research. It is important to realise that the stance of so-called "neutrality" in terms of dissemination of one's work only favours those in power and with money. There are very few poor victims who can access the esoteric literature to find out if there are any studies talking about her/his state of affairs. And if one is indeed doing research to improve the health or wellbeing of the people, then such a commitment of dissemination seems automatic. The fact that it is not is yet another indicator of the non-neutrality of science.

How does one respond when asked to give an opinion?: What is the commitment to people who approach one to give her/his opinion regarding an issue, especially when it is part of a dispute? It must be clearly understood that notwithstanding the rationale that giving an opinion in legal or other disputes is time-consuming and brings one in contact with unnecessary red-tape, etc, sometimes sensationalising the issue only works in favour of the powerful and moneyed. It must be realised that people are merely asking for an honest opinion and are quite willing to accept it if the opinion goes in a manner they did not expect. It is also a fact that shying away from this responsibility only leaves the field wide open for less quality and corporate-contracted research.

The rise and rise of corporate epidemiology

There are an increasing number of articles in mainstream scientific literature reporting the suppression of information, delays in the release of information, blocking the setting of guidelines, etc, by corporate-sponsored "scientific studies" or pressure. In a detailed discussion on the subject in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the author notes: "Many prominent epidemiologists regularly accept funding from industry either to conduct research, or more commonly to criticise research conducted by their colleagues. In some cases, this has gone so far as to assist industry attempts to block the publication of important findings." The author goes on to note that, "there is plenty of evidence that the source of funding strongly influences the conclusions that are reached". In a metaphor of the issue, the author says: "Thus, for every epidemiologist trying to change a light bulb, there are now several critics hired by industry to argue that they are doing it the wrong way, or that it is not broken and does not need changing at all, or that they have changed it the wrong way and should do it again..."

In conclusion I would like to quote Professor Nancy Krieger of Harvard: Ask always whose experience is represented in whatever public health tasks you take on, and if there are gaps, if there are silences, listen and invite the missing voices, so that it is not the disenfranchised who once again bear the burden of uncertainty and injustice.

(Rakhal Gaitonde, a post-graduate in community medicine, works with communities on issues of health systems, accountability and governance. He is based in Thirukazhukundram, Tamil Nadu, and is associated with the Bangalore-based Community Health Cell)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009