When Science Meets Power: A Review

Yves here. As KLG indicates in his discussion below, he is generally on board with author Mulgan’s depiction of the relationship among the scientific establishment, politics, and broader society. KLG is less keen about new regulatory approaches as a major fix. The conundrum is if we had more disinterested, as in not money-driven, science, there would be less need for attempts at overrides….which are likely to be compromised by money anyhow.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

COVID-19 has not been good for “science.”  This has been obvious from the beginning of the pandemic.  Although pressing scientific (and technological) problems have often been fraught, this has ratcheted up several notches over the past four years.  The question is “Why?”  This does not always happen.  Forty years ago, the HIV/AIDS epidemic led to an extended priority fight [1] but for the most part scientific arguments remained well within the normal range.  Dogmatic behavior (“I’m right and you are wrong!”) among the various research groups working on HIV/AIDS was limited during a time when those in every basic biomedical and clinical research laboratory awaited each weekly issue of Science and Nature and biweekly issue of Cell with unusual anticipation.  Although scientists can be competitive just like everyone else, collaboration was extensive in research on the first retrovirus to cause such frightening and horrific epidemic disease in humans

For example, I worked at the margin of a research group that believed the carbohydrates attached to cell surface HIV-binding proteins were a key to AIDS.  As it turned out these complex sugar adducts were not all that important in HIV pathobiology, but several well-known research groups throughout the US worked together openly on this hypothesis with credit being shared without argument.  On the other hand, political arguments about AIDS were at times fierce, alas, for easily understandable reasons given the nature of the AIDS epidemic in the US and Western Europe.  Obergefell v. Hodges was at the time unimaginable and still lay thirty years into the future.  And the Band Played On(1987) by Randy Shilts is the go-to source for this history.  The HBO movie (1997) follows the book as well as can be expected [2].  These political arguments may have presaged what we have seen a short forty years later.

Both scientific dogmatism and political disputes have been a concomitant of COVID-19 since SARS-CoV-2 became a threat four years ago, when a serious respiratory infection in Wuhan was recognized as the third coming of a lethal human coronavirus disease.  When Science Meets Power (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2024) by Geoff Mulgan addresses the reasons for this in detail.  Professor Mulgan is currently Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London.  He was previously the director of the Young Foundation, whose namesake is the indispensable Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1957 as dystopian fiction and completely misunderstood since the mid-1970s.  When Science Meets Power takes an expansive view of power relationships between and among scientists, politicians, and society.  Professor Mulgan describes and explains in accessible terms:

  • How science meets power and vice versa

  • How states have used science (and how science has used the state)

  • The nature of scientific and political truth

  • The institutional science-politics paradox

  • Global science and politics

  • The nature of scientific knowledge

When Science Meets Power is a very good read throughout, a book that scientists, politicians, and citizens should read and take to heart.  Especially scientists.

Professor Mulgan’s two-part thesis is described in words that will please every working or aspiring scientist: “Science is the most extraordinary collective achievement of the human species – a set of methods, mindsets, theories and discoveries that have changed every part of our lives.”  The vast majority of scientists will agree wholeheartedly, while naturally assuming that science is an unalloyed good for all of humanity, and as a matter of course the natural world in which we live.  However, most scientists will also ignore the second sentence of this short paragraph: “But these paradoxical patterns show that a powerful method for amplifying human intelligence is not always so intelligently used.”  Thus, science, including technology, is (1) extraordinary but (2) not necessarily or always a good thing.  A lesson to remember.

Throughout When Science Meets Power, science and technology are often conflated in my reading.  This does not detract from the message, however.  The book is not a history of science or technology.  Professor Mulgan comes from a high-level policy background, albeit New Labour, where technology and science most often meet politics and policy.  Besides, the often-sterile arguments about science versus technology (and its sibling engineering) are tiresome.  The one cannot exist without the other in the modern world.  Moreover, revolutionary scientific advances are often denigrated by scientists as “mere” method.  This was a common reaction among “pure” scientists of my acquaintance when Rosalyn Yalow won half of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978 for a method, the radioimmunoassay (RIA).  But she and her late colleague Solomon Berson used RIA to distinguish between Type 1 diabetes (insulin insufficiency) and Type 2 diabetes (insulin insensitivity) long before the cellular nature of the insulin response was understood.  Without their research, molecular endocrinology, as opposed to clinical endocrinology, could not exist as a discipline.  Another technique that revolutionized cell biology came directly out of basic biological research that would not be funded in the current ecosystem of science (GFP: previously covered here).  It is ironic that several scientists of my acquaintance who feel they were left out of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for GFP were also unimpressed with Rosalyn Yalow.  The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for chemical modifications that make RNA useful as a therapeutic, particularly in mRNA vaccines, is likely to be an interesting subject under the heading “Power and Politics Meet Science and Technology on Behalf of Big Pharma.”

At the center of When Science Meets Power is metacognition, or thinking about how to think, in this case about science, technology, politics, democracy, and society [3].  As a current example, how do we think about what we know about the cause of COVID-19?  This is not difficult.  The agent of COVID-19 is SARS-CoV-2, which has been known since the first weeks of what became a pandemic.  The cause of COVID-19 is essentially coextensive with its agent, especially, for example, in comparison with tuberculosis.  Tuberculosis has been diagnosed in Egyptian mummies but to my knowledge there is scant record of widespread TB epidemics in the ancient world.  The agent of tuberculosis is Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Koch’s bacillus)  The cause of what became the White Death in the 19th century was removal of the people from the country, only to be “housed” in fetid, overcrowded tenements while tormented with malnutrition, disease plus overwork in “dark Satanic Mills” [4].

Figuring out what to do about COVID-19 required “looped rather than linear thinking, since multidimensional knowledge…to handle a pandemic…requires multiple types of knowledge, of which scientific knowledge is only one, and not always the most important.”  True.  But in this case, we did not even get the science right before proceeding to the politics.  This is exhibited by the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) [5], a document with about one million signatures, that originated in the thoroughly Libertarian American Institute for Economic Research (AIER).  The GBD identifies valid social concerns but was published in 2000, before long Covid was appreciated as a serious sequela to initial infection and the less-than-effective vaccines were produced.  The COVID-19 vaccines may lessen the course of disease in some, but they do not work as we have come to expect vaccines to work.  They prevent neither the disease nor its transmission, something covered at Naked Capitalism consistently for the past three years, here three days ago, for example.  The PMC, malware that keeps on giving.

Professor Mulgan uses Hegel’s story of the master and his servant as a descriptor of the science-policy relationship: “Politics, the putative master, has nurtured the servant who now greatly outstrips the master in terms of capability and knowledge.  Science has gained a de facto sovereignty of its own, that sits along the traditional sovereignty of politics: the servant as to some extent become a master…” [6]  This leads to consideration of when, where, and why both politics and science can fail.  The question is: Whose politics and whose science with multiple perspectives interacting with multiple truths.

Sir Geoff Mulgan was previously an advisor to the British government, and When Science Meets Power illustrates how the state and the scientific establishment might work together.  The bureaucratic mechanisms are sensible, well-illustrated in the negative by Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who effectively abolished the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA, 1974-1995) because it interfered with corporate “productivity.”  European countries have done better, but such efforts are getting less effective as neoliberal politics and odd initiatives such as effective altruism (EA) assert themselves, although the connection between EA and Sam Bankman-Fried may have dimmed its allure.

This is all well and good.  Better communication and understanding plus more effective regulatory oversight are to be desired.  But this assumes that regulatory capture, first described by George Stigler [7] of the Chicago School, does not exist.  See Boeing-737 Max 8 and Max 9 (Links January 14th) for a crystal-clear example of the false utility of short-term regulatory capture in the engineering and technology used to build safe and durable passenger jets.  The failures of science during COVID-19 have not been a failure of regulation.  They have been a failure of science, during which “trust the science” was shown to be virtually worthless.

Still, the failures of science and politics are not due to anything inherent in politics or science.  They depend simply on the power of outside, special interests in both: Which politics and what science for whom?  That is, “trust whose science?”  In the case of the Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9, the politics was for Boeing, not those who fly in Boeing aircraft, passengers and crew alike.  In the case of COVID-19, the science that has had the greatest (but negative) impact was for Biomedicine (Big Pharma, Big Medicine, Big Politics), not the population at large and the healthcare workers at all levels who care for us.  This science led to vaccines that really do not work, so far, and big profits for Big Pharma.  Other scientific approaches to COVID-19 have comparatively languished in the meantime.

Virologists and infectious disease specialists have known since avian coronaviruses were first described at least fifty years ago that lasting immunity to coronaviruses through vaccination has been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  Nor should there have been much expectation that herd immunity would work with COVID-19.  Thus, disinterested scientific knowledge was available that vaccines to SARS-CoV-2 were uncertain at best and that “letting it rip” would kill people.  Whether those who died were old and/or had comorbidities, some perceived to be their own doing, is both heartless and against every (previous) tenet of public health.  Nevertheless, Biomedicine essentially went all-in on vaccines [8] rather than physical interventions that do work, such as effective masking, ventilation, and air filtration.  After some early uncertainty, which is to be expected in an emergency, SARS-CoV-2 was confirmed to be an airborne virus, so these interventions were the intelligent public, scientific course of action.  But the imperatives of interested science carried the day.  This was recently illustrated by the many statements of the former Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases on COVID-19 and its origin.

In his final chapter, “The Dialectics of What Is and What Matters,” Professor Mulgan writes that the science-politics paradox can be resolved by:

improving “the metacognition of our societies, our collective ability to think and act in complex environments.  This requires more people who are adept at synthesis – people with the training and experience to grasp in their own minds both the scientific and the political dimension of issues.  It requires synthetic institutions which combine scientific methods of analysis with political reasoning.  And it requires synthetic processes that allow the exploration of the many dimensions of questions and opportunities.

This will lead to:

new logics that start with outcomes desired and work backwards to available sources of knowledge and power…(that)…combine attention to what is with attention to what matters…(these)…can find new homes in new institutions…in nations and globally…and spread in an evolutionary way…just as current dominant logics of politics, science, and bureaucracy have done.

Yes, this could work, even through this academic-speak, which I am comfortable with because it is an acquired occupational skill.  However, as a citizen this seems fairly baroque.  Going back to where we started, the HIV/AIDS crisis of forty years ago provides answers to the science-power paradox.  In the mid-1980s Biomedical Science had not yet become Biomedicine.  Frontline physicians and other healthcare providers, infectious disease specialists, virologists, biochemists, molecular and cellular biologists, epidemiologists, and local politicians and activists in cities such as San Francisco worked together for the most part in a disinterested manner to address, if not immediately solve, a horrific epidemic.  Politicians at the national level remained relatively uninterested in HIV/AIDS for reasons obvious at the time, but substantial research support directed at HIV/AIDS was forthcoming without too much delay.  The science worked.  It was trusted.  We did not require new logics to mediate reciprocal, sometimes antagonistic, power relationships.

That we have lost this is in my view the primary reason that the response to COVID-19 has been so dogmatic and combative.  Biomedical scientists and particularly those in Biomedicine are simply not as disinterested as they were forty years ago.  They also have politicians looking over their shoulder, but politicians do approve the bills.  This has been true since Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin felt the need to hand out Golden Fleece Awards in the 1970s and 1980s to scientists who were working on problems he thought frivolous, often based on the title of a proposal.  Perhaps sometimes, but Proxmire was not funny. Now this interest has become more intrusive, more outwardly political, with less understanding.  This is, of course, a two-way street described superbly by Professor Mulgan throughout When Science Meets Power.

Professor Mulgan ends with:

We need…a science that is responsive, locked in a more intimate relationship with its potential beneficiaries, particularly in fields such as healthcare…We need…careful guardianship, particularly of extremely powerful technologies (such as) artificial intelligence…we need restorative sciences…which address…the very issues science has helped create: climate and ecology; mental health and anxiety…These call forth a science that is caring, compassionate, curing and healing, a science that restores equilibrium rather than only breaking it.

Perhaps this is the moral mission for our time, and the moral underpinning of new hybrid logics, with a mission to mobilize our collective intelligence in all its forms for survival and thriving.

Yes.  All true.  But this requires no more metacognitive expertise than we as a society already possessThe people know.  These desirable things are possible when and only if we return to a disinterested science that is interested in good science that serves the common good.  A key question regarding the common good and science is whether the research leads to a technical solution to a problem that should not exist.  For example, Roundup ready commodity crops (e.g., maize, cotton, soybeans) are a tour de force of plant molecular biology, something I observed closely in the adjacent laboratory in the late-1980s.  These crops also require the widespread spraying of Roundup™ on contiguous thousand-acre industrial “farms.”  The increase in yield of these crops is marginal at best according to most sources, but their cultivation does lead to glyphosate-resistant weeds, another very negative Roundup™ externality.

Good science, in multiple senses of the word, will be supported by a politics that is also disinterested in specific beneficiaries while having only an interest in the common good.  Precise philosophical and practical definition of the common good is not necessary.  To identify where to begin, one need only reflect that on the day I completed this post, Davos Man returned to his natural habitat in the Swiss Valley of the Landwasser to solve our problems, one of which is The Liberation of Science.


[1] The was in the form of credit for the discovery/identification of HIV, which early on had two names: LAV for Lymphadenopathy Virus and HTLV-III (Human T-cell Leukemia Virus-3).  The LAV Group did publish first and won that argument, perhaps because half of the Medicine prize in 2008 went to Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of oncogenic variants of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).  This led directly to vaccines that can prevent HPV-mediated cancer.

[2] Ronald Reagan barely acknowledged AIDS until sometime after his friend Rock Hudson became the public face of a disease that could and did strike down anyone anywhere.

[3] The other critical protean term used throughout When Science Meets Power is “democracy.”  In our vernacular, democracy is in the category “We know it when they see it.”  And by default, the only places it is to be seen are in the “liberal democracies” of the so-called Global North.  However, in the Late Neoliberal Age, what is incessantly called Our Democracy™ that must be saved from “assaults” of one kind or another is not a democracy interested in the common good.  See Dark Money by Jane Mayer, for example.  But this “dark money” is not an attribute of only the Right.  The notional Left that is the alternative wing of one bird of prey is just as compromised but probably at a lower price.  Regarding science and democracy, see Merchants of Doubt and Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

[4] The late Richard Lewontin has written clearly about the distinction between agent of a disease and the cause of disease.  Unfortunately, his dialectical approach to biology has been largely ignored, probably because it questions the accepted neutral instrumentality of modern biomedical research, and in particular biomedicine (Big Pharma and Little Pharma, Big Healthcare).

[5] Great Barrington is an attractive name for a “declaration.”  Great marketing compared to “AIER Declaration”!

[6] The metaphor of the “master and his emissary” used by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2010/2019) and in The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (2021) seems to me to provide the better perspective.  Utterly simplified: The left brain (~science/technology) is better at doing things, mostly unreflectively, while the right brain (~wisdom) is better at understanding the whole.  Unless the right brain remains in charge, things often get seriously out of order.  NB: I am only 100 pages into Volume 1 of The Matter of Things, a 1578-page work in two volumes.

[7] From the link: Next came George Stigler, who at one time had been a follower of Henry Simons.  But later Stigler developed the theory (and justification) for regulatory capture.  He argued that “because industries targeted by state regulation have more at stake than the public or the agency overseeing the regulation, those industries will inevitably gain control of the process.”  This is not dissimilar to the NC post of Thomas Ferguson’s essay last Saturday.  Stigler no longer held his earlier views that countermeasures such as strengthening democratic oversight and preventing the runaway growth of corporate power would be useful or necessary.  In this environment it was but a short hop to Big Pharma and Evidence-Based Medicine as we have come to know them.

[8] COVID-19 vaccines developed have skewed toward mRNA vaccines, although others have been developed.  Based on my experience among scientists I have little doubt that this is because mRNA vaccines are “new and revolutionary,” not to mention very lucrative.  Nevertheless, they have been obvious since the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was put forth by Francis Crick in the late-1950s: DNA makes RNA makes Protein.  Prior to COVID-19 mRNA viruses were attempted for Zika virus, with little success so far.  Recent studies are “promising.”  Given the route SARS-CoV-2 takes into the body, intranasal vaccines that induce a mucosal IgA response are the obvious strategy, along with antiviral drugs.  There is still no HIV vaccine after forty years, but anti-HIV triple drug therapy and pre-exposure prophylaxis work very well for those who have access (i.e., money or a broad-based healthcare system).  We also know how to avoid exposure to HIV thanks to the disinterested scientists at CDC in the 1980s.

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  1. Grumpy Engineer

    That was an interesting read. And I loved his quote of Mulgan:

    Science is the most extraordinary collective achievement of the human species – a set of methods, mindsets, theories and discoveries that have changed every part of our lives.” The vast majority of scientists will agree wholeheartedly, while naturally assuming that science is an unalloyed good for all of humanity, and as a matter of course the natural world in which we live. However, most scientists will also ignore the second sentence of this short paragraph: “But these paradoxical patterns show that a powerful method for amplifying human intelligence is not always so intelligently used.” Thus, science, including technology, is (1) extraordinary but (2) not necessarily or always a good thing. A lesson to remember.

    As a student of the “history of science”, I’ve learned that relatively few new technologies have truly been an “unalloyed good”. Most come with trade-offs, and these trade-offs are usually not recognized when the technology is first introduced.

    Hmmm… I wonder if KLG has a colleague who could write an article about the negative impacts of “science meeting power” on energy policy. It would surely also be an interesting read.

  2. Verifyfirst

    I read somewhere that during the first SARS outbreak in parts of Asia, the reason it was shut down so completely was that health authorities in those countries exercised their powers to implement shutdowns, quarantines, contact tracing, etc. The political leadership of those countries was so incensed by this exercise of power that after the dust cleared, they moved swiftly to strip all those powers from the health authorities. Thus when SARscov 2 came along, the power to act lay solely with political leaders, who did what they did. I don’t know if this is true, but it would help make sense of the response.

    1. Jorge

      This same process happened in California with Covid-19. After the Spanish Flu pandemic, the power to enforce public health decrees was assigned solely to public health authorities at the county and state level. This was used with a very light touch over the years, mainly to implement contact tracing for STDs.

      When Covid-19 hit, the 5 major SF Bay Area counties collectively shut down because the county health commissioners used their powers. It helped us a lot (I live in Silicon Valley). Tesla’s main factory was in the southern half of the East Bay, and my god did M. Musk have a fit when they ordered his factory shut down. That’s why he’s moved a lot of it to Texas.

      ALEC (say it with spit) now has a project to rescind these powers and move them back to politicians. It’s gonna be great, I tell ya! I’ve seen references to this in the past, but can’t find anything now.

  3. Phichibe

    Very interesting review. I may incur attacks for saying this but I disdained Anthony Fauci long before Covid19 for his role in politicizing the science grant process on behalf of expediting HIV research at the expense of research grants in cancer, heart disease, and other maladies with far higher death tolls. Fauci was the target of the Act-Ups and GMHC activists until he became their agent within NIAID. I’m very happy the research worked and has kept so many alive, especially in Africa; but there was a huge opportunity cost on other diseases, and the number of deaths that could have been prevented from these will never be known.

  4. JBird4049

    I assume that as in the United States and Europe, the health authorities got their powers during the past hundred, maybe hundred and fifty years when mass deaths from infectious diseases was normal. Now that those powers enabled the ending of such mass dying, people have forgotten why they existed at all, and we are returning to the past. Unfortunately for us.

  5. Jeremy

    Fully agree that let er rip was catastrophic, but this drumbeat that the vaccines didn’t prevent transmission elides the fact that they did reduce transmission. Eg. These studies found a 63% reduction in household transmission of early variants after vaccination. That’s plainly something more than “may lessen the course of the disease in some”, a formulation which happens to annihilate the social-ethical element of vaccination and reduces it to an individual choice about one’s own health, regardless of what one believes about other necessary policy interventions. And it stands to reason that less viral load means less transmission.

  6. Antagonist Muscles

    lasting immunity to coronaviruses through vaccination has been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve

    Regular readers of KLG’s posts and NC’s coverage of Covid-19 likely believe the above statement to be true. Numerous comments from GM, Yves, and other commenters here with veterinarian experience confirmed as much. Can you link to a definitive paper that describes the difficulty in achieving lasting immunity, particularly a paper that predates 2019?

    I attempted to answer my question by going to PubMed and searching for the phrase “coronavirus immunity”. Too many hits. I then try the auto-fill in suggestion “coronavirus immunity duration,” and sort by “Most Recent.” I skip to Page 161 because I presume that any paper on coronaviruses prior to 2019 will have negligible political influence. I also assume that more recent papers about coronaviruses will have more political meddling (as the above post suggests) and my ability to discern fact from fiction will be attenuated.

    Lanying Du et al. had ascertained in 2008 that for SARS an intranasal vaccine is superior to an intramuscular vaccine, a point Yves has repeated before. Yeon-Sook Kim et al. had the prescience in June 2019 to “assess the potential association of spike mutations with superspreading events.”

    Incidentally, the first hit at PubMed for the phrase “coronavirus immunity duration” concerns Post-acute COVID-19 neuropsychiatric symptoms, something that overlaps with my knowledge of studying my own rare neuropathies. Taquet et al. conclude that “ongoing neuropsychiatric symptoms are not due to ongoing neural injury.” Ok then, if ongoing nervous system lesions from SARS-COV-2 do not cause Long Covid, what causes Long Covid neurological symptoms? This sort of thing is of great interest to me because some mysterious force has been causing all of my senses to augment very gradually over a decade long period, to the point that I wear sunglasses and earplugs nearly all the time to prevent pain. Something set into motion my sensory augmentation many years ago, but I only recently sought medical treatment for this. Likewise, I have a lot of empathy for Long Covid victims because those symptoms can become incapacitating long after the initial infection. Good luck to you if you have bizarre neurological problems from Long Covid, and your doctors (and the government) simply don’t believe you.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This would not be the subject of a paper because the immunity profile from infection for various coronaviruses is known. There is no durable immunity to a coronavirus.

  7. skippy

    Every time I hear phrases like “When Science Meets Power [aka Market forces] I instantly think of the book Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science – Philip Mirowski.

    I mean even pre-covid there was heaps of dramas in medical science after privatization of academy, profit orientated research funding, know a immunologist bloke out of CU boulder here now-natch on that dynamic, hospitals learning or otherwise consumed by PE and its focus on equity price above all else whilst the MBA’s hollow out the place under the tender mercies of ***efficiency*** from a market perspective and not of individual or what is this thing you call public health – oxymoron when hyper individualism with a side of pay to play is the order of the day …

    A discipline that has been completely bastardized and harnessed to create IP rights for a few that make packet off it and the mopes get the pleasure of reinforcing this dynamic by offsetting their lost share of productivity by investing in their own eventual demise – future too …

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