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The Roots of the Science-Practice Gap: A Materialist View


Ricardo Dobrovolski is an associate professor at the Institute of Biology of the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.

He would like to thank Rejane Santos-Silva, Vitor Dantas, Caroline Birrer, Isabel Modercin, and Mathias Luce for helpful comments on the manuscript. This research is supported by the National Council on Scientific and Technological Development (314807/2021-7). This paper is a contribution of the National Institutes of Science and Technology in Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity Conservation (grant 465610/2014-5), using some insights arising from the workshop on human macroecology.

The scientific development of humanity—that is, the ability to investigate the planet collectively, integrating reason and empirical data—allowed humans to understand the world with increasing precision and transform it powerfully. The COVID-19 pandemic showed this when we were able to discover its origin quickly, sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome, evaluate its variations and evolutionary process, understand its global dispersion, and develop immunizing treatments and vaccines. Despite this, attitudes against this knowledge have been widespread, both individually and collectively. Even though we know what to do, as a society, there are many instances in which we did not do it. In the first days of the pandemic, for example, the solutions were already clear: isolation and masks. At some point, vaccines were developed and used, adding to the measures to fight the pandemic. The universal application of those measures for a few weeks would have saved thousands of lives and millions of jobs, and prevented the kind of damage that hit countries like Brazil, Peru, Hungary, and the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious and still ongoing example of the science-practice gap.1

This gap appears in ecology and conservation, for example, when a high ability to define spatial priorities for conservation, restoration, and landscape planning, among other tools, do not contribute to decision-making.2 Similarly, the Aichi targets to mitigate the biodiversity crisis, which had a deadline of 2020, were not met. As a solution, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services suggested higher goals without indicating how past failures can be turned into future successes.3 This mismatch between the level of scientific and technological knowledge and the concrete solution of real problems that would benefit all of nature, including people, has been considered an urgent challenge for society. This urgency has intensified with the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic, health, and environmental crises.4

The dominant criticism in ecology and conservation, and science in general, is based on an “idealistic” perspective that identifies the causes of the science-practice gap as rooted in the “world of ideas.” According to this dominant view in recent literature, the gap is due to a lack of understanding on the part of scientists and other societal actors of their respective roles in decision-making. Thanks to this apparent “cognitive inability,” they cannot act or communicate appropriately according to these functions determined by “ideal” social organization. In this sense, the science-practice gap is chalked up to be a problem of “culture,” “organizational context,” or “problems in interactions.”5 The proposed solutions are thus also in the world of ideas. According to these authors, the actors involved (researchers, politicians, stakeholders) must simply change their beliefs. If the problems are caused by wrong ideas, solutions involve changes in research perspectives, research policy, and education, including scientific training. This dominant approach leaves aside the material determinants of the science-practice gap.

Dialectical Materialism and the Science-Practice Gap

An alternative, dialectical-materialist view of human beings and their history can contribute to a different understanding of the science-application gap.6 The foundation of this understanding is the idea that human beings, similar to other organisms, manipulate and transform the environment to satisfy their bodily and mental needs. Humans, a species with high neural-processing capacity, articulate speech, tens of thousands of years of history, and a large population, do this in very elaborate ways. This transformation of nature drives our sociometabolism, that is, our exchange of matter and energy with the environment to maintain our social homeostasis. This material exchange between human beings and the rest of nature is labor, the basis of human societies. Thus, labor can be associated with the concept of niche-building biology, applied to humans.7

The exchange and processing of matter and energy with the environment is mainly carried out by workers in capitalist society. Substantial differences in people’s lives and their possibilities, even in the face of the most extreme episodes, are the result of the dynamics of class society: in order to survive, workers need to sell their labor power, which they then use for activities that are not decided or controlled by them in the first place, only to further enrich the ruling class and increase its ability to maintain its domination. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while the world economy diminished by about 5 percent, meaning increasing poverty and hunger for millions, the richest billionaires saw a significant increase in their wealth.8 Typical of class society, the alienated work most people are forced to do is the very root of the alienation process, both at the level of the individual and in the social totality, serving as a profound obstacle to people’s humanity and the development of human potentialities.9

Science, a social complex concerned with producing and applying knowledge, is not free of alienation. Knowledge resulting from scientific activity under capitalism is not necessarily produced and used to benefit all, but instead to increase capital. The science-application gap, therefore, is a dimension of the alienation process.10 Although alienation might occur in any social structure that presents trade-offs between collective and individual interests, in class societies the conflicts of interest between classes and the resulting class struggle are the leading cause of alienation.

The Origins of Alienation

For most of our history, humans lived communal lives as hunter-gatherers across all continents, and created a great cultural diversity, such as in the form of different languages. Due to these societies’ relatively low productive power, all people were necessarily related to the production of livelihoods. Everyone was involved in the interaction with nature—the transformation of nature through labor, or the construction of a niche to satisfy needs. In this form of society, the means of production, mainly land, were collective. Thus, there were no classes ruling organization and production.11

The agricultural revolution—the social change associated with the domestication of plants and animals, dating to thirteen thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent and independently in other parts of the earth—allowed each person to produce and preserve more than was necessary for survival, resulting in surplus. From this moment on, it became possible to live off the appropriation of surplus work by other human beings. A new social complex emerged from this need, represented by private property, social classes, state, and market.12

The population increase allowed by higher food production through agriculture, the practice of living in one place for a long time, surplus work, and the state’s development all enabled technological development. The struggle between the ruling class and the dominated classes, those mainly responsible for the exchange with nature, has since been the engine of history. “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”13

In this process of capitalist emergence, the development of science, starting with the Copernican heliocentric revolution, had an important role. Science helped build this new world once production needed to increase and be in permanent revolution in order to survive market competition. Moreover, the ruling classes used the manifest achievements of scientific reason and its explanatory power to fight other regimes ideologically. The finding and proper validation of heliocentrism and the subsequent scientific revolutions that made sense of different aspects of human life were accompanied by the rise of the bourgeoisie, as it became evident that science was ever-useful in explaining the world. Science applied to production made it more and more powerful with the division of labor, the use of fossil energy, and other changes—the Industrial Revolution. Thus, as the capitalist ruling classes emerged, science was a crucial ally.


Capitalism, with its characteristic accumulation of surplus through the production of commodities by waged labor, arose as a product of historical development, and although the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution represented landmarks in this process, this history is not unidirectional or universal. Other modes of production coexisted and coexist, often with a central role in capitalist development. For example, in the emergence of capitalism, slavery, mainly of African people, was at the core of global wealth production. This production, in turn, was under the control of the emergent ruling class. The remaining Indigenous and hunter-gatherer societies are in danger due to the expansion of capitalist agriculture. Thus, although capitalism did not create a homogeneous global society, it created a global market that embraces almost all of the land and people under its control.14

Capitalism works by a permanent increase of capital created by past labor, using living labor. Capitalists who own money, a representation of this labor, invest it in production, labor power from workers, land, and means of production (raw materials and tools) to produce commodities. The invested capital increases by incorporating the labor value unpaid to workers—surplus value. Thus, the capitalists live and get richer by exploiting other people.

Moreover, capitalists can explore the potentials of human work in different parts of the land. Thanks to the differences in land (localization, soil type, vegetation, and so on), with the same amount of invested capital, some pieces of land result in higher production. This difference is the source of land rent, and the search for it is a source of environmental destruction. This process is amplified by the metabolic rift—the plunder of nutrients in one region, causing impoverishment and their concentration in another area, resulting in pollution. The relationship between the city and the countryside is a typical example of this rift.15

The competition among capitalists to extract surplus value and land rent caused a permanent need for change in production, driving new and increasing demands on science and technology, producing an ever-larger amount of material wealth of society. The resulting exponential increase in productivity allowed these emergent industrial centers to reach the “realm of abundance,” that is, the productive forces surpassed the ability to meet fundamental social needs. In this context, the market is an inadequate regulator of social metabolism, resulting in crisis. Since production is not oriented to satisfy human needs in capitalism but to make capitalists richer, contradictions between producers and consumers emerge. These contradictions intensify over time, with increasing inequality and overproduction of goods for sale, caused by the lower purchasing power of impoverished workers and other excluded people unable to buy the commodities. The rise of these contradictions of capitalism then assumes a central role in the dynamics of human society.

The first crisis of overproduction occurred in 1825. In 1847, a new crisis unfolded in Europe that would lead to the outbreak of popular uprisings throughout the continent (and the publication of The Communist Manifesto). By 1877, Frederick Engels had witnessed six crises of overproduction.16 One of the possible responses to the internal contradictions of capitalism was to spread the system to new areas around the world, controlling sources of raw materials and consumer markets. This rush of expansion generated competition between the central capitalist states, resulting in imperialism and world war under pressure from the internal contradictions of capitalism.

Another response to the internal contradictions of capitalism has been waste or destructive production and, at the limit, war, in which science has always played a fundamental role. Planned obsolescence involves (bourgeois) production controllers deciding to reduce the product’s useful life to increase the market. The earliest recorded case is light bulbs, which were the object of technological intervention to make them last for shorter times. Among the contemporary examples, cell phones are a typical case: the production of 11 billion devices over the last ten years, the current 5.7 billion cell phone users, a phone’s average lifespan of two years, and a 10 percent rate of electronic waste gathering and recycling, all demonstrate that much cell phone production is discarded. War, however, represents the apex of this destructive production process, being a critical temporary solution for capitalist overproduction. Again, science has vitally contributed to capitalism and war, such as by developing the artificial nitrogen fixation process and airplanes in the First World War, and with the Manhattan Project and resulting atomic bomb in the Second World War. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented overproduction of destruction. Global war from that moment on would not be a way out for capitalism because it would imply the destruction of humans and life on Earth. Now, the global arsenal can destroy life on Earth many times over.17

After the Second World War, capitalism had a new stage of development, its golden age, with the expansion cycle that took off with the reconstruction of Europe and other parts of the world. However, this development cycle ended in 1970 with the structural crisis of capital.18 Since then, capitalism continued to experience cyclical crises with lower rates of capital accumulation, even in periods between crises.

The emergence of capitalism as a world order and the crises resulting from this process represented a substantial frustration for those who expected humans and nature to benefit from capitalism. But science also showed the limits of capitalism, and capitalists started to have a contradictory relationship with the field, using it to improve production and understand the world according to their needs, but opposing it when findings went against ruling-class interests. Furthermore, in a capitalist society, science often is opposed by the oppressed who recognize science as an ally of the oppressors, when put to use as “paid wage laborers” of the process of exploitation.19

Although science has played a crucial role in capitalist development, science as a human activity of collective and systematic knowledge production is more than bourgeois science. Some of the most scathing criticisms of capitalism have emerged from science. Science can be used to analyze and demonstrate the negative role of capitalism on human beings and the environment, including the understanding of the role of land rent and the metabolic rift in capitalist production and the resulting ecological impacts on Earth ecosystems. However, it is not enough to “warn humanity,” ignoring the reality that science is for the most part under the control of a class that uses capitalism and its destructive power to maintain and increase their own wealth.20


To face these challenges, it is not enough for science to change its discourse, the theoretical education of its students, how research is planned, or how its researchers are evaluated. Although all of this is necessary and can help, science needs to embrace a radical critique of our social metabolism, controlled by capitalism, including a clear understanding of the historical role of class struggle and the role of science in it. It is necessary to understand that the reproduction of human life under capitalism is destructive to the human species and all of nature. Science and scientists must take sides in the class struggle. When capitalism threatens biodiversity, the environmentalist or conservationist presents the issue as a call to take the side of nonhuman nature. What about the conflict between most humans against a handful of capitalists? Should we not also take sides? In this sense, applied ecology and conservation are and must be “on the left,” that is, in favor of social changes in the interests of most people and all nature.21

Science has a fundamental role in building a society oriented toward sustainability. We can no longer wait for solutions to our increasingly critical problems. The syndemics unleashed with COVID-19 and the failure of states to reach social and environmental targets, such as the UN sustainable development goals, have exacerbated the inability of capitalism to solve our problems—a historical consequence of the alienation process where human labor is separated from the needs of people, other living beings, and the environment. As it is currently organized, society is unable to respond to these challenges collectively, due to the uncontrollability of capital. To overcome the control of capital over society we must close the science-practice gap.22


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  22. Díaz et al., “Pervasive Human-Driven Decline of Life on Earth.”
2022, Volume 74, Number 02 (June 2022)
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