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Address to the Academie des Sciences
by Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond
The document printed below is a translation of a speech a young French theoretical physicist, Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond, gave in January, 1970 when he accepted an academic prize for his research. In a letter he writes,
…I do not claim any originality for the ideas advanced. In fact they result from many discussions and are shared more or less by many of the most radical scientists here. Perhaps this point should be made clear, especially in the States; I do not want these ideas to appear as far-fetched personal thoughts, but only as a personal expression of a collective thinking, deeply rooted in the new French radicalism, especially since May 1968.
On June 7,1970 Levy-Leblond was arrested, accused by the Dean of the Faculty of Sciences of the Sorbonne (where he holds a teaching position) of the crime of “desecrating public monuments”. He was charged with having spraypainted slogans on the walls of the science faculty: “RESISTANCE!”, “DOWN WITH THE STATE!”, “FLICS OFF CAMPUS!”
Many of the points in his speech are merely sketched out by Levy-Leblond. Part of our task is to deepen our analysis and understanding of the functions of science and scientists.
“It is with much satisfaction that I receive, today, the Thibaud Prize awarded by your academy. And I experience a special pleasure, whose nature I hope to make you understand, in being able to thank you in person. In fact this prize is useful and valuable to me for several reasons; in particular it has given me the chance to think more deeply about my situation as a research scientist, as well as the possibility of giving some of my conclusions today.
It is impossible, in fact, to receive such a prize without asking oneself several questions: why this reward; what meritorious thing have I done; in whose eyes? And more generally, what and whom does my scientific activity serve? Why do I do research, what are my personal motivations? Why does society organize scientific research, what is the role of science in our society? These questions have more and more often been asked in scientific circles as well as outside of them, especially since the great movement of May 1968 which placed everything in question.
There exist a series of “natural” responses to all of these questions. Isn’t it, in fact, absolutely evident that science plays a fundamental role in the evolution of society today and is the essential motor of its progress? That the scientific researcher has thus become the necessary agent for the happiness of humanity and takes in this thought his primary motivations and his greatest satisfactions? One recognizes here the themes of an incesant lecture (sometimes in more subtle forms although it is really there ), heard from grade school to the university, pushed as much by the most conservative as well as by some revolutionary voices.
There are, however, good reasons to entertain the most serious doubts as to the validity of these responses. Consider first of all the relationship between fundamental research and the progress of society. Two of the most expensive and prestigious branches of modern science are, without doubt, high energy particle physics and space physics. But where are their contributions to general progress? High energy physicists, almost unanimously, have no difficulty in admitting that no application is expected from their domain. As to the much extolled spinoffs of space research I only know of heat-proof ovenware and other similar gadgets. Of course it is easier for me to talk of these things than my own work, for which you are rewarding me today, which furnishes a brilliant example of “pure” research, that is to say gratuitous and without much other interest than to excite the curiousity of some twenty specialists in the whole world.
Of course there are some fields where one glimpses some enormous possibilities for application: medicine or agronomy, for examples, in which there seem to be some technical solutions for the problems of sickness and hunger which are the problems of the great majority of humanity. But the social structures are exactly such that these technical solutions can’t be put to work. When one thinks only of the scandal of crowded hospitals, of the lack of mass health care, of the superprofits of the drug industry and of the lack of support for medical research in France – to say nothing of the problems of the countries which have just escaped from colonial domination. And if, in fact, technical progress does lead to an increase in industrial productivity there is no known case where this has led directly to the amelioration of the living conditions of the masses. It takes a hard, never-ending, social struggle to force the ruling class not to use for their own exclusive profit the new possibilities created by modern science. Thus the modernisation of industry is most often translated into lay-offs for the workers. So between 1958 and 1968 techniques and industrial productivity increased prodigiously -but it took the great strike of May- June 1968 to enable all workers to obtain some improvement in their working conditions -improvements which immediately began to be trimmed down, little by little, by the bosses.
These doubts about the progressive function of science lead to some others about the motivations of the scientists. Certainly a greater and greater number of them are becoming aware of this situation and some come to these conclusions, but too often they take refuge in an ethic of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, where science becomes its own goal (for example look at the inaugural lecture of J. Monod at the College de France.) Here, without doubt, is the last resort of those who refuse to look at the facts in their face.
However, in fact, far from advancing the idea that science and research have no value I am convinced that they are very useful. Only they don’t, at all, serve the purposes and groups they pretend to serve. Scientific activity cannot, anymore than any other activity, be separated from the totality of the social system in which it is practised. As with the others it is principally oriented so as to insure the perpetuation or, at least, the survival of this system. The mechanisms by which it assumes this role are complex but one can, nevertheless, distinguish several types of relations.
First, on the political level, it is evident that the imperialist powers use the resourses of modern technology to the utmost in order to obtain weapons destined to guarantee their power. Undoubtedly the most numerous and coherent applications of scientific research in the last few years have been in this military domain. But, despite the blackmail of atomic terror, the use and effectiveness of these applications remain limited. One need only look at the victorious resistance of the Vietnamese People to American agression in order to persuade oneself that technology and science are not sufficient to guarantee military and political power. Furthermore, these military applications principally use some relatively old discoveries and not the fundamental scientific research of today which, above all, interests me here.
Next, on the economic level one knows the increasingly important role played by fundamental research in the budgets of the developed capitalist countries. Can one seriously believe that such important investments would be made if they had not some use? Since, as I have already indicated, these investments are not, in general, meant to lead to more or less technical applications it must be that they are, in themselves, a necessity of the system. In fact, one sees here yet another means which modern capitalism uses to try to cure its old crises of cyclical overproduction. Scientific production, not leading to mass consumption, can thus play a role as an economic regulator (equally true for the arms race, as well.) The proof is given by the sudden budget restrictions on research in periods of recession: the faucet is closed after the bowl has overflowed and the level sinks! On the other hand, in a period of economic prosperity scientific research is a fabulous source of superprofits for certain industries, for example electronics. Thus these monopolies find a particularly discreet way to pocket public funds, that is to say funds which the state extorts from the mass of workers. But I pass rapidly over these economic aspects which it would be worthwhile to study more closely.
I now want to mention the crucial ideological role of science. One can advance the idea that after religion, followed by the classical humanities, it is today science which increasingly underlies and structures the forms of ideology imposed by the social class in power- that is, the bourgeoisie. Then is science used to give a mask of objectivity and technical expertise to the domination of this class; to capitalism; to exploitation? Oh no, we are only speaking to you about operations research, management, etc. The so-called scientific eminents take for themselves a mission of public relations for the system: Leprince-Ringuet comes on television full of worldly platitudes (but in his own laboratory he ferociously crushes the technician’s strike,) the Nobel Lauriats Kaslet and Monod spread warnings of left intellectuals, never mentioning the technocratic agents of capitalism such as Louis Armand. Science serves to justify the whole apparatus of the social hierarchy by giving it its “objective” criteria. This hierarchy supposedly no longer reflects the class divisions of society but only the aptitudes and competancies of individuals. And indeed it is clever to replace Latin by modern mathematics as an instrument of social selection in secondary schools: the results are the same but the mechanism is, temporarily, a little less evident.
Finally, the last service rendered to this society by science is to direct the new circus games with which they attempt to amuse the crowd and to divert them from serious questions. How else can the race to the moon be explained; the robots which scoop up its dust, at a price of billions of dollars, which represent , in fact, the sweat and blood of billions of people to whom one throws this spectacle as fodder?
In the light of these remarks on the true role played by science, the scientist, the “scholar,” appears as the agent of these mechanisms of enslavement. Whether or not he is conscious of the forces in whose service he works he is, in any event, necessarily complicit. In fact, all of the motivations referring to external use that I cited above: whether it’s a matter of technical progress; or of the happiness of mankind; or even of the ethic of science for the sake of science, are all mere hypocrisy in the face of these facts. Actually, in research as in everything else it is the race for power which inspires scientists. Whether it’s inside the scientific community itself, or on the scale of society in general, one always finds the ideology of elitism at work. Today a university scientific career is a very good starting place for certain government positions. And why not speak very vulgarly about the many material advantages that scientists derive from their profession: in addition to stable employments and a comfortable salary they add, in proportion to their position in the hierarchy, free trips to foreign countries (and even renumeration for them since the expences of these trips are always overvalued,) and sometimes considerable additional benefits such as contracts with industry, positions as scientific consultants and … non-negligible scientific prizes such as the one you gave me today. For what other reason did I put myself forward as a candidate for this prize?
And so I find the answers to the questions that I asked at the beginning. Why scientific prizes other than to reward those who have best carried out the role assigned to them by this society: to propagate and publicize the idea of a politically neutral and socially progressive science; to accept and amplify the ideology of elitism and expertise, and thus to aid the ruling class to mask the mechanisms of exploitation and oppression on which this society is founded. And naturally, the more the researcher is “pure” and unconsious of this role, the better he plays it, whether the reward is in money, in individual prestige, in crumbs of power. But, as with every selection system, there are failures in the selection mechanism, and for once the money from a scientific prize will aid those who would construct a society without exploitation, without hierarchy, and without prizes.