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Science and the 99%: Why some area researchers support Occupy Boston

MIT biologist Jonathan King doesn’t need to look too far to find the influence of the so-called “1%” on the nation’s scientific agenda. The newest, flashiest building on campus is the “David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research,” named for the conservative activist and MIT alum who made his millions in oil, gas and industrial chemicals.

There, the focus is on genomics, nanotechnology and personalized medicine. But, King said research there and elsewhere fails to fully explore cancer causes – like chemical exposures— or how to prevent the disease. In the wider world of science, the link between toxins and disease is on no one’s radar, he says.

“It doesn’t even occur to them that, well, maybe these cancers are due to exposure to a class of carcinogens that are not nutritional, but are chemical and if you identify them, you could cut down the incidence of the disease,” King says

Such thinking might indict oil and chemical companies, he said. Like Koch Industries, for example. In a poll on the website “Who are the 1%?” from the lefty Brave New Foundation, the Koch Brothers are running No. 2, second only to Fox News boss Rupert Murdoch. (See this New Yorker story and this NNB post for the Koch’s response to the charge that their operations harm the environment.)

Researchers like King who support the protesters at Occupy Boston say science is losing out as more of the nation’s wealth is channeled into the hand of the elite. Academic scientists are scrambling for private sponsors to survive in an era of NIH austerity budgets. That means more of the scientific agenda will be profit-driven and in the private domain.

Those keen on smaller government might applaud that shift. But Boston University physics professor Pankaj Mehta sees it as a huge transfer of wealth from public to private interests, with no benefit to the public.

“I think this a part of a larger process that is taking away our commons —the common goods that society needs to function properly,” says Mehta, who has three “Occupy Boston” flyers on his office door. “A science for the people — a public science — is a common that everyone can benefit from.”

So Mehta, who arrived at BU this year from Rutgers, is working with the occupiers. Along with several other academics, he launched the Occupy Boston Howard Zinn Memorial Lectures, named for the late activist, historian and BU professor. Mehta urged other academics to join the movement when he took the open-air Dewey Square stage in October to introduce Zinn’s compatriot, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky.

“Knowledge is a public good and part of making money scarce…inherently it become more commodified and available to only those with power and money,” Mehta said later.(For more on this argument, see the book Science in the Private Interest by Tufts’ Urban Studies Professor Sheldon Krimsky.)

At Mehta’s request, King will be giving one of those Zinn lecture, his entitled “Science for the 99 %.”

And while most of area schools have their own Occupy links, not everyone on campus supports the effort. A group of student has started a petition to end the Harvard Yard occupation, which led Harvard to restrict access to the students, staff and faculty. (The closure of Harvard Yard has created major detour for Harvard Square foot traffic. So the petition may be as much about logistics as it is about politics.) The full list of signers isn’t available, but a management student named Ali Evans offered this comment: “Occupy Harvard doesn’t make sense. We are the 1%. Enjoy it.”

Over at MIT, editorial writer and chemistry major Rachel Bandler slammed the effort in the student paper, The Tech.

“The Occupy movement shrugs aside personal responsibility and scapegoats “the one percent,” and this is not an attitude that will strengthen America," she wrote.

Next: More on Boston student scientists and Occupy Boston.

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    NECSI Programs said:

    This research was performed by the New England Complex Systems Institute (www.necsi.edu) under Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam.