Science in the service of bad politics

Science in the service of bad politics
By Salim Vally
Mail and Guardian supplement, ‘Getting Ahead’
[22 -28_04_11]

Shortly after the University of Johannesburg (UJ) resuscitated an apartheid-era agreement with Ben Gurion University of Israel (BGU) in late 2009, colleagues at UJ who disagreed with this development sought an audience with an academic key to the envisioned joint water research project.

He responded by writing, “I am afraid I may not be helpful in this instance since I do not hold any particular view on the Israeli-Palestinian matter. My involvement is purely on a research basis as I am engaged in this project based on the expertise in water research at Ben Gurion University. So it is purely for academic reasons.”

This snub, phrased cordially, is revealing of the mindset of many natural and physical scientists – and, incredibly, some social scientists too. It suggests a nurtured distancing of the social and political context, a privileging of technical expertise over social justice and a desire to separate the academy from societal engagement.

The Neutrality of Science?

These academics are either naïve or disingenuous because they do not understand the profundity of social and political choices that inform their work and often the catastrophic consequences arising from it. This was the recognition that prompted Einstein to declare that the one great mistake in his life was to suggest to Roosevelt that the atomic bomb could be made. He had no idea about its devastating effects.

Nearly all the great Western natural philosophers - the philosophers who spoke about the value of scientific endeavour, including Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Bronowski and Einstein - had no illusions about the role of science since they claimed social (or spiritual) purposes for it and pursued their work on that basis. The fragmenting of scientific endeavour and its ostensible removal from sociocultural and political life today has obscured what was once the norm.

In addition, individual scientists, even if they are not aware of it, come to science with perspectives informed by their social settings, history, prejudices and the choices ingrained and developed in them by socialisation. The funding of science also illustrates the important role of political choice in scientific work.

Professor Steven Rose, world-renowned neurobiologist at the Open University in the United Kingdom, was a co-founder of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science in the period when biological and chemical weapons were used in Indo-China. He has written extensively about bad science in the service of bad politics. He also wrote, “You can’t solve unemployment with gene therapy or targeted drugs. The causes of misery are not predominantly biological.”

Academic Freedom?

The UJ/BGU imbroglio also prominently featured academic freedom. In the case of violent occupation, apartheid, genocide and gross human rights abuse, academic freedom must surely bear some reference to these very conditions for the criteria of its determination. Failure to recognise this will mean that the very concept of freedom more generally, and academic freedom in particular, becomes both meaningless and bereft of any practical possibilities.

The basic rights of academics, as explained by a Unesco report, do not exist for the majority of Palestinian academics. Pertinent too is the fact that unlike other countries where human rights abuses exist, Israel is pampered and privileged by the West instead of being sanctioned despite countless instances of the violation of international law and conventions.

Unlike many countries where human rights abuses exist, an overwhelming number of Palestinians, the real victims, including a significant group among Israeli academics, have called for the isolation of the Israeli state and its institutions. This call is not as an end itself but toward real freedom for all. An ex-Israeli academic Oren Ben-Dor argues that, “A boycott to foster real academic freedom in Israel should unite academics all over the world … [T]he boycott I wish to see is a boycott intended to produce academic freedom.”

Ben-Dor insists that academic freedom is not some idle abstraction that unconditionally shields academic pursuits. Professor Hilary Rose, a sociologist of science, reminds us of academics, including liberal and left geneticists, who actively collaborated with their German counterparts who in turn provided the “scientific” basis for the ugly concept of “lives not worth living” and Rassenhygiene.

Rose writes: “Here, an absolutist principle of academic freedom … [facilitated] the eugenic project of the Final Solution.” It is instructive that both Hilary and Steven Rose are members of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine and supporters of the boycott campaign against Israel.

Through the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), Palestinian academics speak to the many ways in which Israeli academic institutions scientifically collude with occupation, ethnic cleansing and racism in practical terms - whether through engineering, geography, demography, hydrology or psychology, among other disciplines.

Why Boycott?

The intention of our spurned attempt, referred to in the opening paragraph, was to bring to the attention of our colleague the comprehensive report issued by Amnesty International in the same week UJ signed the agreement with BGU. The report, titled Troubled Waters-Thirsting for Justice: Palestinians’ Access to Water Restricted, detailed meticulously Israel’s discriminatory water policies.

The report shows how Israel permits Palestinians access to only a fraction of water, mostly under the occupied West Bank in aquifers, while Israeli settlements receive virtually unlimited supplies. It states that “Israel uses more than 80% of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the main source of underground water in Israel and the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories], while restricting Palestinian access to a mere 20%.”

In addition, the aquifer is the only source for water for Palestinians in the West Bank, but only one of several for Israel, which also takes for itself all the water available from the Jordan River.

While Palestinian daily water consumption barely reaches 70 litres a day per person, Israeli daily consumption is more than 300 litres per day. In some rural communities Palestinians survive on barely 20 litres per day, the minimum amount recommended for domestic use in emergency situations.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have no access to running water and the Israeli army often prevents them from even collecting rainwater. The report also mentions that “[in] contrast, Israeli settlers, who live in the West Bank in violation of international law, have intensive-irrigation farms, lush gardens and swimming pools”.

In the Gaza Strip, 90% to 95% of the water from its only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is contaminated. Israel’s medieval siege of Gaza has prevented the import of basic building materials, spare parts and energy for the treatment of waste water. Chemicals necessary for desalinating the brackish water are prohibited by Israel.

These restrictions are compounded by Israel’s frequent bombing sprees against infrastructure, utilities and Gaza’s only power plant - and in March of this year Israel confirmed holding the chief engineer of this power plant in an Israeli jail. Chief engineer Dirar Abu Seesi was kidnapped from a train in Ukraine in February while on his way to visit his Ukrainian wife and their children.

Israel has also imposed a complex system of permits, which the Palestinians must obtain from the Israeli army and other authorities in order to carry out water-related projects in the OPT. According to the Palestinian NGO LifeSource even when on the rare occasion a permit was received to build the Salfit Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Israeli military vetoed the project.

In the face of this and many other egregious instances it is not surprising that, on August 5 last year, the UN Human Rights Committee found Israel guilty of directly violating Palestinian human rights to water and sanitation.

More specific to BGU, researchers have found that BGU’s water research and biotechnology institutes and laboratories have clear links with Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private military contractor, and the Jewish National Fund, which has expropriated vast properties belonging to millions of Palestinians. (see

Despite the hubris, patronisation and spin of the pro-Israeli lobby, which makes the absurd claim that South Africa’s water problems would have been solved by Israeli expertise, the truth is that our water woes have less to do with technology and expertise than with the historic and ongoing negative role of the mining industry, privatisation and the maintenance and provision of water infrastructure to name just a few key areas. The proposed and small-scale UJ-BGU partnership in water research was far removed from these contextual issues.

The decision to sever links with BGU was not an impulsive one. It was reached, by secret ballot and supported by the overwhelming majority of UJ’s senate members, after an 18-month-long debate involving committees, task teams, fact-finding missions and lengthy council and senate deliberations. It has the support of the vast majority of students and staff members, and has been supported by leading intellectuals in South Africa and beyond.

In an age of the neoliberal “knowledge economy”, where there is mere rhetorical support for social justice, where research and teaching related to this purpose are seen as “ornamental”, and where lucre trumps solidarity, this is a significant victory. The UJ community must be congratulated.

(Salim Vally is based at the faculty of education, University of Johannesburg.)