Review of Prabir Purkayastha’s Knowledge as Commons — Towards Inclusive Science and Technology: A people’s science movement

Prabir Purkayastha on why social control of major scientific and technological transitions is imperative so that technology serves the public good

April 26, 2024 09:03 am | Updated 09:03 am IST

“How do we look at science and technology? What role do they play in society, and, equally important, what is society’s role in developing science and technology?” Prabir Purkayastha has set down his thinking through his decades as an engineer, social/political activist, as a part of the people’s science movement, and of the free software movement. Few engineers and technologists have written about the nature of their discipline, he says, maybe because while scientists of an earlier era were taught philosophy (“At least Einstein’s generation of scientists were”), engineers came from trade schools, and worked with their hands. This book is his contribution to the dearth in the literature.

Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science and Technology builds on certain core ideas. Here’s some of them: while science and technology draw each on the other, the objective of science is to know nature; that of technology to build artefacts and so change nature. To build something in the real world, technologists need to bridge the gap between what is known and what is not. Increasingly, science needs artefacts in order to understand nature: illustratively, the Hadron Collider.

Illustration showing particles’ collision in Hadron Collider.

Illustration showing particles’ collision in Hadron Collider. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘Runaway technology’

Science and technology are part of a triad, along with society. Technology’s choices are social choices, and cannot be left to a technocratic elite. It is why we need a people’s science movement, demystifying science and technology choices. Social control of major scientific and technological transitions is imperative so that technology serves the public good and is kept away from doing harm. The destructive potential that has been unspooling since the industrial revolution, as also modern warfare, has brought us to the precipice, where runaway technology — and he invokes nuclear weapons, climate change from greenhouse gases, biological weapons — could “destroy the world as we know it.” Maybe this would have sounded hyperbolic a few decades ago. Not today, when there is a serious knocking together of heads to consider if the Holocene epoch — which was marked by human occupation of the earth — had to give way to the Anthropocene, signifying human impact on the planet: a euphemistic way to speak of the destruction humans have demonstrated the ability to cause. For the moment, the geologists have shelved the idea, but that this is even being seriously considered should give us pause.

‘The commons movement’

Scientific and technical knowledge is “universal labour”; the ‘commons movement’ in science is not only about the reproduction of the rights to knowledge, but also on how science is to be produced, as an open and collaborative exercise. The idea of the commons meets the force of corporate self-interest, and what we have is a patenting regime that supports private appropriation on a grand scale, of both “biological and knowledge resources held in common by society.” This now extends, for instance, to patenting of life forms, genetic resources, genetic information in life sciences. This property regime in knowledge should seem incredible, but it has merely got normalised through repetition.

Evoking a sense of foreboding, he speaks of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where what stood between life and death (literally) was Big Pharma’s profit. And, as he says, and we saw, COVID showed that this was not an isolated instance. Then there is Nexavar, a cancer drug that Bayer had priced at $65,000 for a course for a year. Addressing it as “theft”, this is what the CEO of Bayer said when India made it accessible by bringing it within a compulsory licence: “We did not develop this medicine for Indians... we developed it for Western patients who can afford it.”

The battle over the commons is also a battle of ideology or ideas. He would have us revisit Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ to see how, essentially, it was an ideological attack on the commons.

In a juxtaposition of two ways of thinking, he cites the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom when she speaks of the irony that the infinite commons of knowledge are treated as if they were finite, while the finite commons of air and ocean are treated as if they were infinite.

India’s scientific advances

In exasperation at political personages making claims about science in ancient India, he produces an interesting chapter on the actual advances India made in medicine, surgery and mathematics. He debunks the western claims to being the progenitor of ideas scientific, as he does of the ‘white man’s burden’ while exploring the history of India’s development of the modern number system and zero.

Purkayastha makes no secret of being a Marxist, although it is not ideology but reasoning with science that moves from page to page. It is difficult not to wonder if these are what have landed him in prison. The book, though, introduces us to a mind that is intelligent and concerned about the state of science in the country. I will leave you with these extracts: “What differentiates a developed economy from a relatively less developed one is its scientific and technological knowledge. That is why the Netherlands is an advanced country while Saudi Arabia with a GDP of similar order is not.” And, “confusing history with fantasy also ignores the central division that caused the ossification of Indian science, the separation of the hand from the head.”

Think about it.

Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science and Technology; Prabir Purkayastha, LeftWord, ₹395.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based law researcher.

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