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Responding to the Gulf Catastrophe: A Public Interest Research Agenda

By Carolyn Raffensperger In 1998 Jane Lubchenco, now head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency called for a new social contract for scientists. She said:

As the magnitude of human impacts on the ecological systems of the planet becomes apparent, there is increased realization of the intimate connections between these systems and human health, the economy, social justice, and national security. The concept of what constitutes "the environment" is changing rapidly. Urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes challenge scientists to define a new social contract. This contract represents a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day, in proportion to their importance, in exchange for public funding. The new and unmet needs of society include more comprehensive information, understanding, and technologies for society to move toward a more sustainable biosphere--one which is ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just.”

Twelve years later, in the face of the Gulf catastrophe, creating this new social contract is more critical than ever. It is time that we establish and fund a public interest research agenda.

Corporations and universities developed the technologies to drill in the Ocean a mile down but neglected to develop companion technologies to prevent disasters or respond to them appropriately. We didn’t learn anything from the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that occurred twenty one years ago. “BP’s Doug Suttles admitted that industry’s tools for cleaning up oil spills – such as booms and skimmers – aren’t ready for the 21st century.”

There’s a long list of policy failures at play in the BP disaster. We had regulations that privileged corporations and money rather than the Earth. The entire legal system is rigged against public health and the environment since it puts the burden of proof of harm on the public rather than placing the burden of demonstrating safety on industry. Agencies do cost-benefit analyses on individual activities and neglect the cumulative impacts of multiple activities. Corporations and governments alike ignore early warnings. These are all huge problems that need to be fixed.

Added to this list is another big problem that we need to address immediately in order to develop technologies and strategies that prevent and mitigate messes: our research agenda skews in the same corporate direction as our regulatory policies. The public money spent on research and development (R & D) is essentially designed to increase economic activity and benefit private interests. U.S. policy is to pay for research and transfer new technologies to corporations so they can put them on the market. You can guess how this works--we are far more likely to develop new widgets and technologies for resource exploitation that make companies rich than we are to develop approaches that protect the commons or the public good. We have not yet developed laws and policies that would put into place Lubchenco’s new social contract.

A year after Lubchenco published her germinal paper, I along with several coauthors wrote a paper defining public interest research. We said,

“Public interest research aims at developing knowledge and/or technology that increases the commonwealth. Such research requires complex problem-solving and will involve at least the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of people and natural resources. It will require that insights from these different ways of knowing be synthesized, and that an active citizenry be involved. (Peters, 1999)

Such research will be identified by its beneficiaries, the public availability of its results, and public involvement in the research. These key benchmarks identify public interest research:

  • The primary, direct beneficiaries are society as a whole or specific populations or entities unable to carry out research on their own behalf.
  • Information and technologies resulting from public interest research are made freely available (not proprietary or patented); and
  • Such information and technologies are developed with collaboration or advice from an active citizenry.

"Public" means "not private." Most research done in the private interest is done for the financial gain of a limited, circumscribed group. Research done in the public interest will seldom involve such direct financial gain to the developers and will benefit a community or the commons.”

The time has come. We must establish a public interest research agenda that

  • - Develops effective technologies for preventing and stopping problems, cleaning up the messes and restoring ecosystems;
  • - Develops alternatives to harmful technologies through biomimicry, green chemistry, green engineering, green energy, sustainable agriculture and ecological medicine;
  • - Develops early warning mechanisms.