Serving the Corporate Master: Unethical Research and the Misuse of Science in Baltimore and Avatar


Serving the Corporate Master: Unethical Research and the Misuse of Science in Baltimore and Avatar

Image source:
Image source:

As we extend our discussion of the provocative themes found in the blockbuster movie, Avatar, we turn to the role played by researchers and scientists. When it comes to getting to the root of the twin missions of American imperialism and colonization, it is incumbent to do what is true in other searches for truth: follow the money. For many scientists and researchers in the United States, the quest to gain new knowledge is financially supported by entrepreneurial academic institutions or the federal government that provides funding for much of scientific research.

Universities are becoming more and more corporatized and focused on generating profit. Science and research are two of the most powerful products that universities have to offer and this is why more and more university institutions are looking to finance and build biotechnology parks where new ideas and products can be developed, patented, and packaged for a push to market. Once erected, biotech parks might produce a new form of pharmaceutical drug, a new form of screening for health conditions, or a new process for isolating specific genes that might cause certain diseases.

Thus, the quest for new knowledge and advancement in science are increasingly driven by a corporate financial imperative at entrepreneurial institutions of higher learning. Scientists and researchers are beholden to a profit ethic that escalates the likelihood of unethical research and the misuse of science. However, there is little that is new under the sun. For instance, scientists and researchers have historically been at the center of corporate and exploitative efforts to dehumanize and demean people of African descent in America.

Medical ethicist Harriet Washington has detailed much of this history and present action in her work Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. In her book, Washington delves into the varying ways that medical researchers have worked to legitimize and justify slaveocracy and the slaveholding economy of European Americans during their enslavement of people of African descent.

But as discussed in the BBC documentary entitled, “Scientific Racism: The Eugenics of Social Darwinism,” scientists and researchers have contributed greatly to the pain and harm suffered by people around the world. The documentary delves into the intricacies detailing how scientists and researchers have long generated knowledge in the service of imperial design, thereby legitimizing and justifying murder, exploitation, population displacement, land dispossession, and concentration camps for people of color around the world. Thus we find that the history of abusive science and unethical research stretches across oceans of geography and time. Some examples abusive race science include:

  1. Phrenology—measuring skulls as a way of determining the intelligence and racial superiority of Europeans compared to others.

  2. Social Darwinism—a way of blaming the victim by saying on the strong survive and the weak will perish; discussed extensively in the aforementioned BBC program.

  3. Drapetomania—the “psychological disease” that caused enslaved Africans to runaway; purportedly prevented by “whipping the devil out of them.”

  4. Medical experimentation—including various gruesome incidents such as white doctors operating on black patients without anesthesia and using them for experiments without their consent.

  5. Eugenics—proposed improving the human race through selective breeding and sterilization. Certain white ethnic groups were proposed to have superior genes compared to inferior white ethnic groups and people of color.

By examining this legacy of abusive science and unethical research, we come to understand how science and research has been used to legitimate oppression and normalize exploitation. Corporate and imperial governmental interests have sponsored and supported a stunning and sickening array of pseudo sciences. By doing so, corporate and imperial governmental interests could then use their bogus and bigoted pseudo sciences to proclaim of targeted populations: “These people are diseased! They are savages! The weak naturally perish and only the strong survive, therefore they need our civilization to thrive.”

It is in this vein that science and research can become the enemy of vulnerable peoples, as it relates to the threat of displacement and dispossession. One can hear corporate developers employ claim: “Displacement and dispossession are good for these people. They will be better off. They will be healthier and happier than before!” The public is more likely to believe such a narrative when the name of a powerful research institution such as Johns Hopkins University stands behind the claims. But these claims are patently false and perversely work to serve the bottom line of corporate developers or entrepreneurial academic institutions.

The point here is to understand how scientists and researchers are often employed by benefactors—corporate interests, governmental interests, or corporate developers—that dictate the terms of research on “the natives” or vulnerable populations. And often the aim or the end goal of the powerful and wealthy is to generate more wealth and power at the expense of those without much wealth or power.

In Avatar, the Na’vi have interacted with science team led by Grace. They send their children to her school to learn English and to learn about human culture. The Na’vi are subjected to the whims of humanity’s corporate interest in the mineral Unobtainium. They watch as humans employ their rapacious technology to pillage and plunder their planet Pandora. After meeting Jake Sully, a warrior of the “Jarhead clan”, the high priestess of the Omaticaya clan, the Tsahik, tells him: “Learn well, Jake Sully. And we will see if your insanity can be cured.”

That is a powerful statement and a stunning reversal from what we are accustomed to hearing. Whereas the corporate interest makes a concerted effort to paint the Na’vi as savages and unlearned in the need of salvation, the Tsahik informs Jake that it is the pillaging and plundering human beings in service of the corporate master who are afflicted with the deadly cancerous cultural construct and disease of insanity.

When researchers and scientists serve their corporate masters or work to satisfy the financial ethic of profit, the health and well-being of vulnerable populations are in grave danger. Whether its Johns Hopkins in East Baltimore (via EBDI) or the University of Maryland in West Baltimore (via its BioPark), the corporate incentive to mistreat the surrounding people of African descent is ever-present. After all, such actions have been practiced and perfected so diligently and consistently for over 400 years, that mistreatment is the default course of action when corporate developers desire land.

Whereas Johns Hopkins has negatively affected the lives of its surrounding community via serial forced displacement, the University of Maryland’s BioPark has increased home prices leading to indirect displacement via gentrification. Both institutions are buying up or have bought tremendous amounts of property, pushing out vulnerable people in the process. In the case of Johns Hopkins, they have sponsored a program called “Live Near Your Work“ which subsidizes home ownership for certain Hopkins employees. In effect, the institution has forced over 1,500 African American families to leave while incentivizing another group of people to live in the Middle East. Mindy Fullilove and colleagues refer to this type of sorting the population as “The Ghetto Game.”

To be clear, not all researchers and scientists serve a corporate master. But the profit incentive and the financial ethic are powerful forces and motivations affecting whether or not science will be misused and abused or research will be conducted in an ethical manner. Scientists and researchers have the responsibility to challenge scientific racism that legitimizes and justifies the systematic mistreatment of black communities here in Baltimore via residential displacement and land dispossession. Scientists and researchers have the obligation to identify and explain how corporate masters are playing “the ghetto game” of residential displacement and land dispossession in conjunction with city and state leaders.

If we do this, we can finally understand how the narratives we create through the misuse of science and unethical research undermines communities and the lives of individuals. We can better explain how segregated and disinvested communities are pawns in “the ghetto game” played by corporate developers and entrepreneurial academic universities—a game that generates communities of low opportunity and neighborhoods characterized by high unemployment, health disparities, violence, crime, and anti-social behavior.

Ultimately, we will find out as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed, that no lie can live forever and we hold the sacred duty to confront the pervasive insanity that so demeans and devalues the humanity of the black community. The strategies that were once applied to the black community are increasingly being applied to other groups including the white community. It is a situation described by Dr. Cornel West as “the niggerization of America.” As Dr. West describes:

When you’re niggerized, you’re unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, hated for who you are. You become so scared that you defer to the powers that be and you’re willing to consent to your own domination. And that’s the history of black people in America.

Judging by the government bailouts of Wall Street corporations and recent revelation of intrusive spying conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA), it is clear that “the niggerization of America” is well underway. No one is exempt from the expanding power of the corporate masters, especially when their actions are given a scientific veneer by researchers and scientists. The question is: what are we going to do about it? In Avatar, Grace eventually joins the fight against the corporate interests by telling the Na’vi the truth about their scientific missions. Only by exposing the historical strategies and tactics of corporate developers and government interests—and organizing to defeat them—will we be able to fashion a future that is sustainable for all.

Lawrence Brown

Lawrence Brown is a political activist, public health consultant, and history aficionado. He has partnered with community groups in East Baltimore to devise strategies to assist residents who were displaced from their community by EBDI and Johns Hopkins University. Lawrence has collaborated with the labor advocacy group Community Churches United and testified at Baltimore council hearings regarding displacement, development, and local hiring practices. He is also an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University.