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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960


The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge

Numerous elements constitute an essential part of the economy of knowledge in any situation: scientific knowledge and products; the system in which knowledge and products are provided, as well as their public; the definition and role of scientists and technologists as experts; financial support; the legitimating paths; and patents and royalty regulations. Today, all of these elements make up a complex network or operating system. In addition to the traditional sites where knowledge was generated (universities, research institutes, hostphitals, public offices and laboratories), during the last decades of the 20th century the system for the production of scientific knowledge underwent a profound transformation that involved not only traditional institutions, but also other parties, among them the private industry, trading companies and public administrations. This phenomenon appears to be extremely important for any approach to scientific studies that consider science in [1]

society and that analyse the relationship between science, politics and social institutions.[2]

The latest contributions by an influential group of social thinkers, economists, philosophers and historians,[3] have helped conceptualise and make understandable the profound changes that our society experienced from the second half of the 20th century, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As science and technology form a substantial part of this transformation,[4] some sociologists have taken a step further by analysing the changes in what is called the technoscientific production system.[5]

What is the origin and what have been the main coordinates of the transformation experienced by the relations between science and society? Contemporary historians of science generally assumed that a new regime of knowledge emerged over the past three decades, one which is essentially different from that initiated by the Scientific Revolution in early modern Europe. Science changed radically in the context of profound social and political transformation experienced by Western societies during the 20th century, changes that affected the social regulation of knowledge production, circulation and use. From this standpoint, the simultaneous evolution of society on the one hand, and science on the other, have reconfigured scientific practices and institutions into a very different system of relations widely dispersed among a number of agents: universities, innovative companies, private laboratories, financial institutions linked to the market, as well as other social structures that result from collaboration between research bodies and private and public spaces (laboratories, research groups). General agreement has been reached on the fact that actors (researchers, financiers, technicians, administrators) constitute separated groups, have different training, operate according to different interests and show different cultures. Nowadays, innovation and technoscience shape a new political economy of scientific knowledge, being the main source of wealth in developed countries.[6]

While the traditional pattern of organising science was based on a stable academic structure - a hierarchical organisation of work, well established expertise, strong and permanent facilities, public funds and a system arranged into areas of knowledge and stable disciplines - the current model of technoscience production could be described by using the famous expression proposed by Zigmunt Baumann to represent today’s society: liquid modernity (flexibility), change, adaptability of organisational models to meet the demands of a reality in a continuous process of transformation.[7] Science no longer represents essentially logical or epistemological values. On the contrary, it develops according to social demands and the interests of the stock market or the capital gain business. Obviously, the financing of science in more technologically developed countries depends not only on public authorities; it is now increasingly supported by private initiatives. The new model requires collaboration and the coinciding interests of researchers, professional groups, entrepreneurs, lawyers, public demands, the market and politicians. The complex dimension of scientific production and its size can be easily perceived if we consider controversial issues such as genetically modified food production, the industrialisation of foodstuffs, research, the production and marketing of large-scale vaccines, the search for solutions to climate change, energy production, engine design, the effects of electromagnetic waves upon human health, reproductive technologies, stem-cell regenerative medicine, as well as a long list of topics that represent the most relevant challenges of today’s world.[8]

As a counterpoint to the complex current network of relations, many social scientists believe that science was characterised in the past by the autonomy of research as a system of knowledge production, depending exclusively on the logic of scientific research, the interests, judgements and methods of experts, and the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge in itself, regardless of the interests and social demands of dominant groups. This vision of science in the past shows little criticism of the rhetoric that has traditionally represented science as an independent entity, giving knowledge an intrinsic value that does not require social legitimacy. However, the history of science shows that at least from the starting point of the so-called scientific revolution, all contributions are formally or informally subjected to a plurality of social evaluations, whether or not they are technically suitable, positive for the future, cost effective or timely to solve a problem. All of these conditions obviously depended on cultural, social and economic factors, always having to justify rational consistence and efficiency in the context of a social and economic system, which gave scientific products significance and suitability.

The transcendence of the techno-scientific activity is unprecedented, as many current environmental, human, political and economic challenges depend on it: stopping the deterioration of the environment, using genetically modified organisms, assisted reproduction, stem cell culture in regenerative medicine and reproductive technologies, waste treatment, and many others. Technoscience has generated interdisciplinary areas of action which are based on collaboration between scientists with different expertise to resolve technical problems, as happened in the mid 20th century with issues such as new materials science or computer science applied to medical diagnosis, but sometimes trying to tackle issues of a greater magnitude and dimension with regards to industrial policy, health and economic impact. The sociological analysis of the relationships and influence between technical and scientific networks, the industry, economy growth and social policies are of great interest in understanding today’s society and explaining social change. After all, we must admit that ever since the 1980s there has been a change in the production of scientific knowledge and its relations with the productive system and the structure of society itself. The production of knowledge and the production of wealth are now closely related, constituting an inseparable binomial. Western citizens have developed a particular culture of science and have a different perception of the capacity of technoscience to affect human life and transform the world in a positive sense, even if new risks are involved.[9]

However, the idea that science before the past few decades was pure and independent from the economy, politics and social interests would not stand up to a history test. History of science has shown that since the beginning of the Modern Age in the 16th and 17th centuries, science has always supported the army and contributed to the wealth of nations and empires, closely linked to politics. From the outset, modern science has developed techniques, instruments, objects, weapons and devices that have contributed to the practical domain, to political or military control and to the construction of the prevailing order in the world. Moreover, since the late 19th century, scientific communities have been grouped into a wider range of academies, associations and societies, creating legitimacy through the role of expertise, establishing networks and conferences, sharing laboratories and technologies. At the beginning of the 20th century, science was more than just academic science enclosed by university structures. The technological change experienced by the new economy based on chain production in the globalised 1920s - including the production of cars, aeroplanes, electrical devices, atomic energy and so on - was essentially based on scientific research. A wide and diverse range of public and private laboratories, hospitals, museums and workshops served the economic expansion and the massive production of artefacts.

Although it seems difficult to speak about public funding during the first decades of the 20th century, the emergence of a providential state, together with universities, scientific associations, public and private laboratories, shared their space with scientific military academies, societies for the advancement of science or technical schools and industries. Royal protection was essential as well for the development of natural science at the beginning of the modern age, and the new technologies (navigation, the military, mining and agriculture) represented an essential contribution in the process of colonial expansion of European monarchies around the world between the 15th and 20th centuries.

However, since it is clear that the technoscientific systems in place in the 16th century and in the second half of the 20th century are neither the same nor comparable, it is convenient to establish a new periodisation based on the idea of science in society, different from that which has so far been traditionally based mainly on the history of the evolution of scientific ideas.

As a starting point, the concept of regime of knowledge has been proposed in research about certain trends in the sociology of knowledge. Other sociologists and historians have talked about a system of production of scientific knowledge and technological artefacts. Pure sciences and humanities initially shared the same intellectual context. But in the 16th and 17th centuries astronomy, navigation, cartography, artillery, military architecture, construction tools and machines, natural philosophy, anatomy, chemistry, natural history - alongside colonial expansion and other matters and social changes - led to a reversal of classic science into new ways of relating to nature and the manner in which scientists traditionally explored the world. The so-called Scientific Revolution - a controversial concept from different points of view, and something that cannot be discussed in depth here - in fact represented a methodological change that prioritised experimental empiricism, but also a big transformation in the social dimension of science and in the social use of machines and artefacts derived from scientific knowledge. Examples that show the important role of science and technology at the start of colonisation include the vacuum pump, the art of machine building, the construction of botanic and acclimatisation gardens, alchemical laboratories for liquors and scents and perfumes.[10] Later, in the 18th century, natural history, agriculture, chemical laboratories and physics cabinets proved that knowledge and actions resulting from good scientific practice were associated with an adequate organisation of the social body.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the academic superiority of scientific knowledge over the technoscientific practices of other social groups (workshops, laboratories, chemistry, meteorology centres) was demonstrated. Steam engines, railways, the telegraph, the chemistry of dyes and textiles, electricity or the radio, are examples of emerging forms of interaction between the industry and academic science, which would later reach a much more meaningful dimension with the use of nuclear power and the aeronautical industry. The period from the late 16th century to the early 18th century was marked by the goal to intervene in nature and dominate it. There was no pure science on the margins of social dynamics in a different context dominated by trade and economic, military or political interests.

Scientific change in this period was a result of many factors that converged to transform the global system of knowledge production and its methodologies. Speakers from a variety of institutions - not only from universities, but also religious groups such as the Jesuits, military academies, scientific travellers, naturalist institutions (botanical gardens, gardens of acclimatisation, departments of natural history), physics cabinets, chemical industries and small public and private laboratories - weaved a particular network of science production and knowledge circulation. A number of social actors took part and stimulated scientific activities: courts, monarchies and aristocracies, commercial companies, entrepreneurs and financiers, scientists, theologians, naturalists, doctors, politicians and philosophers. Knowledge and ingenium constituted an inseparable binomial, and the same applied to empirical observation and the experimental method (experimentum) and the increasing role of expertise.

From the science in society perspective, the production of knowledge is structured in a particular way in each historical period, but it is always consistent and integrated into the socio-cultural system, never mind the regimes of scientific knowledge or systems of scientific knowledge. Both concepts are based on the observation that modern science was never an independent reality, a purely coherent system of statements of a cognitive dimension that possess autonomous dynamics from the social context and stable over time. Science and scientific practice have been concentrated across a set of relationships and production techniques, instrumental calculations, metaphors, methodological standards, moral behaviour and, in pluralistic settings, laboratories, universities, conferences, professional associations, as well as economic, political and legal institutions. Every historical period and socio-political context articulates all of these elements in a specific way, making science a form of institutionalised social practices of production and technical management and policy. The functional dynamics of institutions, the methods of validating knowledge and the practical behaviour of researchers are the result of social, economic, political and ideological factors. The notion of system of knowledge, regime of knowledge or system of knowledge production refers to a network of institutions, ideas, beliefs, practices and regulations, showing the social, political and economic boundaries of scientific practice. It represents a set of institutional commitments that depend on a plurality of logics typical of various historical forms of society and values.

Since the late 19th century science adopted a new reality as a social institution, covering new areas of production and new modes of action. Universities were open to more technical approaches and industry started to exert more influence. The scientific work was closely tied to mass production, influenced by market dynamics and, as expressed by Max Weber, to what could be called bureaucratic rationalisation. The laboratory, as a major site of production of scientific knowledge, became an organised and hierarchical institution, establishing new forms of labour division and specialisation, and giving social importance to the figure of the expert, as is obvious in medical specialisation or in industrial laboratories. Science was accepted and promoted by the state in a context of international rivalry and war risk, to the point of becoming a key element in the politics of the nation-state. Think of the health system, the national institutes of hygiene, such as the Pasteur Institute in Paris or the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, or the Junta para Ampliacion de Estudios e Investigaciones Cientificas in Madrid. Consider the expansion of provincial health laboratories, national food institutes, the Radium Institute, as well as many other scientific institutions that contributed to the wealth of nations in the early decades of the 20th century and to people’s health and reinforced national identities.

The new historical context stimulated the social use of scientific knowledge and the development of new tools and international standards for the industrial production of scientific products (vaccines, vitamins, hormones, medicines...). It also increased the size of scientific and technological businesses, marking the origin of a new technoscience industry that emerged as a multinational economic driver already in the inter-war years, with specific applications such as electrification, the telephone, drinking water, sanitation supplies, electricity, vaccines and vitamins. Science and technology became the spinal cord of modernity in the process of urban transformation and had a growing presence in the economy, international trade and industrial development. Electricity applications, bacteriology and serology, the physics of radiation, among many other scientific fields, made up the basis for many practical domains, such as industry, the army, communications, transport and innovation in domestic affairs.

A transformation in governance practices also occurred and the management of scientific activity multiplied the areas and spaces of knowledge production. The ways in which knowledge was legitimated and appropriated diversified and new interaction and negotiation dynamics between scientists appeared, via conferences, professional associations and specialised publications, modifying and amplifying the social structure of science. Involving the transformation of scientific practices and the emergence of a new technoscientific system closely rooted in the economy, this intense process of science reconstruction was closely linked to new organisational structures with a social, economic and political dimension.[11] The state played a new role, expanding its functions in the promotion of science as a tool to stimulate progress and modernity, a structural reform involving public administrations, which gave the state unprecedented prominence in the social dynamics.

The national reconstruction that took place in Europe between 1870 and 1960 gave new legitimacy to the state as a social agent intervening in scientific, technological and sanitary developments. Science, technology and health were considered again a greater good for citizens and an emergent field for business and economy growth. Becoming the primary, most important stakeholder, the state had to regulate and promote the interests of national defence, as well as the economic, political and military applications of science. A strong and providential state therefore emerged as the manager and regulator of social relations, applying expertise and scientific knowledge to integrate workers and peasants to reduce inequalities, and to dismantle worker revolutions; it was a state that managed economic growth, living conditions and people’s health by means of scientific indicators, epidemiological records, economic calculations and vital and social statistics. Western countries participated in this tendency most actively. The state apparatus was used in science and industry to improve the economy, the health standards of the population, living conditions in urban and rural areas, as well as design hygienic houses for workers and prepare for war. In the first half of the 20th century, technoscience was basically at the service of the State.

The former world, under a Westphalian balance of power between nations, and regulated by elected or representative parties that collectively defined the priorities (for science, industry, or the redistribution of services and wealth) gave way, at least in part, to global or planetary systems mainly regulated by markets and other partially new forms of ‘governance’. One should, however, keep in mind that the major states still played a pivotal role in geopolitical relationships - this being particularly clear when one investigates the great national innovation systems in the principal powers.[12]

In such a controversial period, technoscience achieved great importance as a tool for the State as policymaker, to serve the public good, ensure order and national power and create the conditions for national stability. It was a wide and complex programme based on the commitment of the social classes under the hegemony of the State. The crisis of the 1930s further strengthened the role of the government in social and economic activities. Liberalism and the market were adapted and took advantage of the growing importance of the providential state. A sort of social agreement for the population’s welfare and social assistance transformed the State into the only power to counterweight the threat of war, social crisis and conflicts.

From the perspective of the contribution of science to economic growth, the productive system also renewed practices, structures and objectives during the first half of the 20th century. Numerous things were developed: mass production; new production lines based on Fordism and Taylorism as productive ideologies (driven by the massive sales of advertising policies); product standardisation; and new patterns of industrial production and labour organisation. Technoscience was called on to play a growing role in the materialisation of modernity and innovation. Throughout the 20th century economies based on the knowledge of laboratory technicians became widespread and fundamental for economic planning. The transformation of economic structures also implied a crisis for family businesses without any planning. The middle decades of the 20th century saw a movement of social transformation that leaned on experimental science, technology, social science research and management, which led to a redefinition of the social function of science and technology, opening up new links with the economy and the market. In certain fields, this was the origin of an economy of knowledge, driven by the latest communication technologies.

It can be generally accepted that until the last quarter of the 20th century some balance existed between open and public science driven by universities, large foundations, national laboratories and other public institutions, and science produced by private companies. The equilibrium was based on coordination through circulation and exchange between the two areas, state universities operating as intermediary agencies and strong entrepreneurs of science. There was also a balance between science as an independent project in the hands of university scientists, basic socialisation rules as state institutions and industrial research focused on producing benefits in relation with market competition. This balance was reflected in regulations and patents.[13] In this context science contributed to the rationalisation of Western societies and to the construction of national states through national science, as an element of industrial management and government in macroeconomic administration, public health or military organisation.

Between 1870 and 1940 industry grew spectacularly based on scientific knowledge: the pharmaceutical laboratories; the National Institutes of Bacteriology; telegraphy and electricity companies; radio channels; the industrial production of food; and the film industry. The new industries were based on new laboratories, technical institutes such as the Radium Institute, the Pasteur Institute, the National Bureau of Standards (USA), the Curie Laboratory, National Institutes of Health, the Institute for Health and Tropical Medicine and National Institutes of Physics. National agencies and research laboratories sponsored by the state or local authorities were the main driver and the source of funding. It is easy to understand that the beginning of the technoscientific industry in the late 19th century was not an isolated event, since it was being set up at a time in which the nation-state experienced a transformation, as discussed above. This helps us gain an insight into the fact that the new economies based on scientific research contributed to constructing national ideologies, reinforced by the historical discourse and the material power of science and technology. This is evident with the Spanish crisis following the 1898 military defeat and also with Nazi Germany. Science meant wealth and power.

The laboratory became the key space for the production of knowledge. Professional scientists, now enjoying an expert status, also became key legitimating actors. Scientists were no longer sheer scholars or intellectuals; they also acquired recognised expertise and monopolised professional fields. Science and experts’ activity became a part of the industrial context and an ideological agent in the nationbuilding process. National science and technology reached similar importance to that of the national army or the national economy. A long list of scientific, economic and political dimensions make nutrition, hunger and health a paradigmatic case study, along with numerous other aspects: agricultural innovation, food production, nutritional science, education in nutrition, nutritional habits, calorie and nutrient analysis, the patterns for an optimum diet. There is also the rationing of diets, the definition and limits of malnutrition, the clinical effects of nutritional deficiencies, experimental nutrition science, the food industry and the food chain.

World War I prompted greater economic planning, new forms of rationalisation of production and new scientific applications (vaccines, detection of attacks, etc). At the same time, the pressure of the labour movement and the fear of communist expansion posed a threat to liberal industrialised societies. Liberal reformism invented social security systems that went beyond traditional paternalism in addressing disability, death, sickness, unemployment, hunger and old age. Social protection systems were based on varying forms of insurance, representing a new corpus of values around the concept of citizenship and civil rights, a form of collective solidarity increasingly coordinated by the welfare state. The new ideology promoted common good as the highest value and a sense of belonging to a community. This mentality reflected the great pillars of the new nation state after the decline of the old empires: the right to education, health, housing, food, etc. The implementation of the welfare programme was only possible thanks to a political economy based on scientific and technological progress. More than a bilateral relationship between the individual and society, the new political culture promoted identification with the community; a culture of analysis and planning linked to the State as a governing agent and a regulator.

Access to foodstuffs and a sufficient calorie intake, a healthy life, social wellbeing, and health care constituted essential values in the programme. Among those called on to implement it were reformist national elites, political national authorities and international networks - mostly promoted by the League of Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation and later on by the international bodies created within the orbit of the UN. The two world wars and the Spanish Civil War had brought about unprecedented opportunities and exceptional crises. The idea of progress and modernity was built around scientific and technological development that had specific goals, prospective reports, a solid analysis of the situations, meetings of experts and action plans. This wide programme required a strong state administration and technically well- trained experts. The period that spanned between the Cold War and the first oil crisis in the early 1970s was characterised in most Western countries by the construction of the welfare state and grounded on a strong and efficient public administration. Trade, education, culture and health converged in a socially constructed idea of progress and community commitment. The state, through public policies, implemented the dynamics that brought the working classes to configure new middle classes, far from the situation of the proletariat and its traditional claims for a social revolution. In Western Europe the NationState operated as social regulator, intervening in the economy and redistributing goods and services in a system of social protection. This was based on taxation to redistribute the proceeds among all social sectors for public benefit.

Under these circumstances, the technical capacity for the material handling of physical and biological entities was to be strengthened. Atomic nuclei, molecules and genes became fields of technological development, and collaboration between university laboratories, national research entities and industrial and private research institutes gave birth to new technologies such as the laser, those derived from atom physics, electromagnetic wave applications, high precision instruments and many others, which contributed to medicine and communication technology, and improved daily living conditions. Technoscientific development became the cornerstone of the economy, progress, modernity and national power, encompassing numerous products: the telephone, the telegraph, the radio, refrigerators, washing machines, cars, planes, high-speed trains, television, followed by electronics, aerospace devices, computers, satellites, etc..

  • [1] Weindling, P. (ed.), International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918-1939,Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • [2] Latour, B., “Essays on Science and Society: From the World of Science to the Worldof Research?”, Science, 5361, 1998, pp. 208-9.
  • [3] Among them, Zigmunt Baumann, Ulrich Bech, Jurgen Habermas, Jean Le Goff,Alain Touraine, Joseph Stieglitz and others.
  • [4] Hereinafter I will use the term technoscience as a neologism expressing the newreality.
  • [5] The contributions to this field by Bruno Latour, Michael Gibbons, Helga Novotny,John Kriege and Dominique Pestre, as cited in the bibliography, have been widelyrecognised among academics.
  • [6] Pestre, 2003, pp. 151-155.
  • [7] Bauman, Z., Globalization. The Human consequences, Cambridge, Polity Press,1998.
  • [8] Barona, J.L., Salud, tecnologia y saber medico, Madrid, Ed. Ramon Areces, 2004.
  • [9] Beck U., Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Newbury Park, CA, Sage, 1992;Beck, U., “From industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, SocialStructure and Ecological Enlightenment”, Theory, Culture and Society, No. 9, 1992,97-123
  • [10] Moran, B.T., Patronage and Institutions: Science, Technology and Medicine at theEuropean Court, 1500-1750, Woodbridge, Suffolk, Boydell Press, 1991; Rossi, P.,Ifilosofi e le machine 1400-1700, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2002.
  • [11] Pestre, 2008, p. 47.
  • [12] Ibidem, pp. 181-190.
  • [13] Ibidem, pp. 142-150.
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