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The political economy of science

In this post, I am reflecting on the book The Political Economy of Science edited by Rose and Rose (1976b). It is a longer post. Yet, it does not contain all my reflections. It is a rich and thought-provoking book, which I think should be read by many.  

The book is critical of science as a construct and tool of the capitalist system, of how science connects to class society, and how it is a product of and helps to maintain hegemonic views. As it uses a Marxian lens one could criticize this book for being biased. However, the book outlines, the dominant view is biased as well. Though, this dominant view is usually not labeled as being biased. Rather it is understood to be natural, logical, or objective. Since we are mostly fed with content that conforms to the dominant view, some non-hegemonic views might at least give us some food for thought.

I am doing research on the role of researchers and research as such in social change processes. Mostly I focus on the much-needed sustainability transition. There is a renewed interest in the role of researchers in sustainability transitions. This role might not be limited to analysis but could include more active roles such as the change agent (Wittmayer & Schapke, 2014). Thus, some call for scientists to be actively involved in transformation processes. In an earlier post, I discussed my perspective on a specific paper calling for this more active role of researchers.

Studying literature, I stumbled upon the sociology of intellectuals as well as Gramsci’s work on the topic. Reading these texts, I thought that there is a political economy of science. However, I could not find papers about this topic. Though, texts that discuss the privatization and marketization of science connect to the political economy of science. I started searching specifically for political economy of science literature and I found a book called The Political Economy of Science, published in 1976. I ordered it. I do not think it is in print anymore. I got an old book from the Aberdeen University Library. However, there seems to be a digital version (which I did not have access to).

The topics the book covers indicate that actually there is much literature about the political economy of science. Though, this literature does not – at least not that I am aware of – refer to political economy of science. In the introduction, the editors state that this book was necessary as serval problems within the field of science needed a discussion embedded in a proper theoretical framework. These issues are the “changing mode of production, the proletarianization of scientific workers, the question of natural sciences as generator of ideology, and of the ideology of science with its devaluation of all non-‘scientific’ knowledge, its elitism and the subtleties of its particular form of sexism and racism” (Rose & Rose, 1976c, p. xv). All of these issues are still relevant and several of them are increasingly discussed. The topic of racism and sexism remains a discussed topic (Boivin et al., 2024; Nobles et al., 2022; Staniscuaski, 2024; Woolston, 2022), issues related to e.g. the decolonization of knowledge is increasingly discussed (Au, 2023; Gewin, 2022). And of course, the whole question around scientific versus non-scientific knowledge has regained interest through the call for co-creation (Huttunen et al., 2022).


Several courses I took during my university education at the University of Vienna discussed such issues. However, I wonder how many students are confronted with critical and radical views about science and academia. This is not about the obligatory course on gender. This goes much deeper and is about questioning the very education one enjoys getting. It is about questioning the system in which this education is embedded, how this education connects to the system, and what privileges I hope to get by enjoying this education. How enjoying education helps to maintain a system that is built on exploitation.

Personally, I like reading old books. They give you insights into how people thought in earlier times and how the events of that time influenced their thinking. I also like to read old texts as, at times, you learn that today a text might not be represented as it should be. For example, Rogers is famous for his S-curve describing the process of innovation mainstreaming. However, his book (Rogers, 1983) has a whole section about paradigm changes, which allows to see his work in a different light. Another example is my view on Konrad Lorenz. In Austria, he is handled as a national hero due to his research on ethology. I stole a book from my parent's library, die Acht Todsünden der zivilisierten Menschheit (Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins (Lorenz, 1973)). Another old book. I stole it because it seemed interesting. Shockingly, I learned by reading The Political Economy of Science, that Lorenz might have been an active part of the Nazi regime[1]. I was quite in shock as throughout my whole education I never learned about this. I learned about ethology, but not how his work was used (seemingly with his support) to advocate for eugenics (Though, I could have connected the dots). This, to me, is yet another example of biased education (like Africa being a tabula rasa until the Europeans came).

Anyhow, I got this book for none of these reasons. I got it, as it was the only reference about the political economy of science that I found. Some might argue that reading old texts is not worth it, as it is outdated information. Interestingly enough, there is a section in chapter three that discusses the obsolescence of knowledge and information (Ciccotti et al., 1976). It is argued that the continuous provision of new information and knowledge is part of, or even a fundamental condition for, the capitalist mode of production. As part of the capitalist mode of production, information has to, like any other commodity, be provided at an increasing rate.

“Thus, the production of ‘pure science’ takes on the rhythm of the industrial production of information, which, as we have already made clear, represents an indispensable condition for the growth of information as a commodity. It does not matter whether the information is useful; it matters that it can be produced” (Ciccotti et al., 1976, p. 53).

Some information might indeed get outdated (like some old R code that only works in an old R package). I doubt though, that knowledge or information generally gets outdated. At times we continue to reinvent the wheel. Many things discussed in this book are still relevant today. New articles are published presenting old issues as new. For example, that is, I would argue, the case for the debate about the role of science and scientists in transition processes. The chapter by Gorz (1976), for example, reflects the discussion about co-creation in science, which I thought is a new topic. Reading old texts can be quite confronting and depressing as one learns that we have not moved far.

It needs to be highlighted that it might not be the scientists’ fault that we are reinventing the wheel. I think, we as scientists, are simply unable to keep up with the sheer number of publications in a field.

“In the field of high-energy physics alone hundred pre-prints of work are received in the library of one big laboratory every week, or some 5000 each year. No one is in a position to digest this great mass of information or to select those contributions which are most useful to a particular end” (Ciccotti et al., 1976, p. 53).

Kajikawa et al. (2014) report that around 2014 about 12000 publications on sustainability were published each year. Arguably, if we cannot digest 5000 publications a year, we can neither digest 12000 a year.

Ciccotti et al. (1976) continue to highlight that if the publications have not much value in terms of content, then their value needs to be connected to something else. And that is productivity. Ciccotti et al. (1976) highlight issues about output-driven academia that are very much discussed these days. It relates to the problem of echo chambers in science (Unerman, 2020) and the pressure to publish to stay in the game (van Dalen, 2021). The issues they warned us about in 1976 are very real today. As a postdoc, I know what requirements need to be fulfilled to even have the chance to get a Tenure Track position. Getting a Tenure Track position does not put an end to the rat race. Getting a long-term contract requires one to continue performing. In some countries, there is an attempt to make changes. For example, in the Netherlands, they want to shift to other evaluation criteria (NWO, 2024). While I think that is a good step, I do not think it addresses the issue. If the authors of the book The Political Economy of Science are correct, then academia needs to be disconnected from the capitalist mode of production to solve the issue. If not, I will in the future not only be evaluated by the number of scientific publications but additionally by an increasing number of other variables. Thus, the pressure will not decrease, it will likely increase.

As a side note, whether one is able to fulfill specific performance criteria does not only depend on the researcher, but also on the institution one is embedded in. The new evaluation criteria suggest leadership as one variable. This includes supervision. However, this is not at all a new criterion. Already now I need to have teaching and supervision experience to get a Tenure Track position. However, many job openings clearly state that teaching is not or only marginally part of the job profile. Even if teaching would be allowed by the respective contract the researchers still need to get access to teaching courses and supervising students. From experience, I can tell that this is not always the case. Thus, whether one performs well is not at all only up to the respective researcher. Though, I do not see how such structural issues are addressed by new evaluation criteria. The same is also true for publications. Papers remain on the desks of editors for months and might then get a desk-reject. Valuable months are lost. Such things are all not in the hands of researchers, yet they determine our performance.

Interestingly one of the suggested new evaluation criteria is impact (NWO, 2024). I am skeptical of such a variable. Should I even have an impact? We are back to the question about the role of science and scientists. How connected to society are and should scientists be? Are we also supposed to be impacted by others (our stakeholders) and if so, how are we measuring this? If we are impacting others but are not impacted by others, then the science-society connection is a one-way street. That though is not in line with the notion of co-creation. If we are impacted by others, by whom? By the upper class? Or by the people? Maybe even by minority groups? How should our work relate to the views of stakeholders and how are we contributing to perpetuating the status quo or advocating for change?

I guess that is a weird question to pose. As scientists, we are often asked to highlight the impact of our work or to write policy recommendations. In the last chapter of the book, Enzensburger (1976) provides a critical view on this question. On the one hand, he argues that scientists are not political enough in their argumentation as their recommendations might neglect for example power struggles or socio-economic injustice. On the other hand, precisely because of the neglect of reality, he questions the policy recommendations provided by scientists. An example is the recommendation to reduce consumption to tackle pollution. If such a recommendation is not accompanied by a general critique of the system that is based on consumption, the recommendation is half-baked. Thus, Enzensburger (1976) criticizes scientists for separating ecological problems from social injustice, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, class structures, etc. I would argue that his point is still valid. With the last IPCC report, there was much debate about whether the reports call for degrowth. If so, this would be a call for a new system, which is not based on consumption. However, the IPCC reports do not explicitly use the term and one is left with reading in between the lines (Parrique, 2022). It is not that some researchers would not want to use clear language. They don’t use terms like degrowth as they know that the summary for policymakers would not make it through the approval process[2]. Another example is the recent paper by Rockström et al. (2024), suggesting a new governance system for planetary commons. While they highlight injustices and power struggles, the suggestions are rather unrealistic. Potentially a new governance system could be created. Still, one is left with the question of whether that would change much. Rockström et al. (2024) refer to success stories of the past such as the Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) phaseout. This success of banning CFCs was however not merely achieved by global governments, but rather pushed by powerful companies[3] (Maxwell & Briscoe, 1997). Rockström et al. (2024) also refer to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A recent report though outlines that we are not on track to reach the SDGs (United Nations, 2023). Another example would be glbal agreements, like the Paris Agreement, wich has not brought about a sea change in terms of CO2 emissions. We already have reached an average temperature increase of 1,1°C  (IPCC, 2023, p. 42) and accumulatively emissions keep rising. Thus, while it might be good to have institutions in place, they have shown to be very limited in their effectiveness.

This is not to say that scientists should stop providing evidence for needed change. But, this is to say, that solutions require a revolution. I know that this in itself is an unrealistic recommendation. Yet, given the social injustices around the world, a revolution is not completely off the table.

Another critique by Enzensburger (1976) is that scientists are in a privileged position. Even if they criticize the establishment, they are part of it. Thus, their recommendations support top-down routs rather than bottom-up empowerment. If scientists are part of the establishment, whose interests are we then representing? What is the political economy of science? Are we helping to quiet people by promising them a techno-fix? Or are we helping to make oppressed voices heard?

In an article about the sociology of intellectuals, it is explained that one can distinguish between three viewpoints. Science as class-less, science as class-bound, and science as its own class. The view that understands science as neutral is the class-less one. The own-class view proposes that scientists follow their own interests, but are at least not bound to some other interest group. The class-bound view indicates that scientists are working in the interest of some other group (Kurzman & Owens, 2002).

Famously, Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) called for scientists to leave their ivory towers and connect with society. They call the research process of collaborating with societal stakeholders as equal partners post-normal science. Post-normal science refers to Kuhn’s (2012) concept of normal science. Kuhn (2012) describes in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientific revolutions start from normal science, which is the accepted state of the art. A revolution entails leaving the paradigm (the state of the art) behind. Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) take a methodological view on this concept and argue that the new science, the post-normal science, needs to connect with society. Thus, the paradigm change is about how science and society connect.

However, that science is disconnected from society is a conception that was pressed on science, without it (ever?) being true. Science is not disconnected from society. Portraying science as disconnected from society was a move to disconnect science from the real-life consequences of the products of science. In chapter one of The Political Economy of Science, Rose and Rose (1976a, p. 24) write about the atomic bomb. It was symbolic of “the alliance between the domination of nature by science and the domination of humanity by power.” To save science from negative connotations, science was declared neutral. “The defense against this criticism was to claim the neutrality of science […]. It was merely the application of science that was non-neutral.”

To claim the neutrality of science it needed to be on par with natural law. Reflecting on Marxist thought Rose and Rose (1976d) outline how Engel’s conception of science contributed to this. Motion was a central concept of change within natural sciences. Motion follows natural laws and is thus independent from human action. Engels replaced the concept of practice – which Marx used – with the concept of motion.

“Replacing the concept of practice with that of motion is the first step along a path which denies humanity any active part in transforming itself, making instead merely the puppet of the mechanical laws of nature, and hence history [emphasize added]” (Rose & Rose, 1976d, p. 11)[4].
“In it, natural science, seen as the more or less mechanical revelation of nature’s laws, becomes neutral and is placed above class; the scientist himself also ceases to have a class position, and instead, as nature’s […] agent, conducts a revolution within his test tubes. The battlefield of revolutionary class struggle is pushed aside by the revolution of technique”(Rose & Rose, 1976d, p. 12).

It needs to be highlighted that before it was understood that to understand something one has to interact with it. Rose and Rose (1976a) refer to a quote by Mao Tse Tung stating that to experience the pear one has to eat the pear. Of course, by eating the pear, the pear is changed. This understanding of science illustrates the entanglement of science with its study object that does not allow a mechanical, clean separation. The new understanding of science, however, allows scientists to slip into the role of an independent observer.

As science became a-ideological (neutral) everything supported by scientific arguments became neutral, following God-given natural law. That then applies to IQ tests or Social Darwinism, where the superiority of some is reasoned by natural law and neutral metrics (Rose & Rose, 1976a). Thus, divorcing science from society not only allowed science to become apolitical, it also allowed the political to become a-ideological.

There is a whole chapter on IQ and how it was used to ossify hierarchies (Rose, 1976). It is interesting to read how these IQ tests were constructed to prove the dominance of the white upper and middle-class man. The dominance is connected to their ostensible cognitive superiority. That of course gives legitimacy for rulership. You could even argue that the superior white man acts as the protector for the stupid; like parents protect their children. This reminded me of the book Plato’s Revenge (Ophuls, 2011). If I recollect correctly, the author suggests that people should be ruled by an educated elite. I was somewhat intrigued by the idea, as the arguments the author brought forth sounded logical. The arguments from Social Darwinism might sound legit as well. While research on biological determinism is interesting, given human history, we should never forget the dark alleys this could lead us down. In fact, that we are still struggling with racism and sexism illustrates that we never managed to get out of these dark alleys (not even in academia – where people should be educated and able to reflect on their behavior).

Reading the IQ chapter, I had to think of the GDP. A metric developed by scientists that is used in similar ways as the IQ (Lepenies, 2016; Schmelzer, 2017). First, it became used for states to know how much resources they have for warfare and how this compares to other nations (thus an indicator of military power). Second the comparison with other nations was essential from the start and still is. Countries with a low GDP and low GDP growth are understood as underdeveloped, thus they are of inferior status. This leads to the same isms as the IQ metric. And as it is sold as a neutral value, the underlying reasons for having a low GDP are neglected. Imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and exploitation of people and planet are all neglected. The nations with a higher GDP are functioning as caring parents helping those poor underdeveloped nations on their way up.  

In chapter three, amongst others, the ostensible neutrality of technology is discussed (Ciccotti et al., 1976). It is outlined how technology is used to generate profits and how the use of technology lifts environmental exploitation and destruction to a new level. Yet, technology remains to be viewed as neutral. To this day, this is so as Hornborg (2023) discussed in the context of technologies to mitigate climate change. The neutrality of technology is also reflected in the religious pursuit of technological solutions to any sustainability problem. Our system is portrayed as socio-technical, where technology can fix it all. That technology caused the problem is completely neglected[5]. Socio-technical transition literature is void of criticizing the current mode of production. Contrary, the market system is understood as part of the solution. The whole body of literature attempts to be innovative, while it only perpetuates hegemonic views.

Technocentric or deterministic views once were progressive and a means to bring about societal change. Enlightenment allowed societies to be disconnected from religious rule. Over time science lost its progressive role and became part of the hegemon narrative.

“The most powerful of these groups is that of the technocrats, who, at all levels of the state apparatus and also of industry, are busy finding the speediest solutions to particular problems – ‘quick technology fixes’ – and implementing them […]. These people consider themselves to be entirely pragmatic – that is to say, they are servants of the ruling class at present in power – and cannot be assumed to have a proper awareness of the problem”  (Enzensburger, 1976, p. 166).

Enzensburger (1976) further indicates that since the technocratic, pragmatic view is the dominant one, solutions are usually technocratic. I can refer to projects that focus on technology fixes and upscaling of solutions. The question of optimal scale is not posed. It is assumed that the solution is upscaling. It is assumed that solutions need to align with the current economic system. Solutions need to be profitable. There is no reflection about how the current economic system created the problems that we now try to fix with new technology. We are happily treating symptoms. The attempt to add alternative views, such as consuming less, remains on a rhetorical level and they are in the end brushed away as unrealistic. When profitability is used as the prime indicator, we are assuming that we magically can trade off a social or environmental loss with money. Which we cannot.

Though, the alternative is difficult to sell. The verdict that suggestions to reduce consumption are unrealistic aligns with the arguments provided by Enzensburger (1976). Such suggestions are elitist. It is easy to tell others to consume less, if one lives in abundance. We are drifting in the direction of degrowth criticism, which I do not want to expand on here. In short degrowth or the call to consume less is not addressed towards those who are in lack.

Enzensburger (1976) makes a point that criticizing ideologies can be an ideology in itself. I think it is a valid point and a trap that any alternative worldview can fall into. Alternative models of the world often emphasize the role of community and participation. But not everyone might like this. I always think of the introverts in this world who might be reluctant to participate in community activities. If we ascribe an alternative model general validity, it becomes ideological and it will exclude people. How is this better than what we have now? Thus, any criticism of the status quo and any suggestion for alternatives needs to bear the awareness of not being the end-all-be-all. I like to think of Donella Meadows’s leverage points. The most powerful leverage point, is to transcend all paradigms (Meadows, 1999). That is quite an enlightened state to reach.


There is much more to reflect on. But I will draw a line here.

I am struggling with the question of what role scientists should take in society. At times I think that we are intrigued by the thought of having an impact. But imagine your impact is negative. Imagine your thoughts, your invention is used to support something negative. I have mentioned Konrad Lorenz in the beginning. In the footnote, I explain that there is still a discussion about whether he was an active supporter of the Nazi regime or not. Let’s assume he was not. Then his work was abused to legitimize ethnic cleansing. There are so many technologies that can potentially be used in bad ways. Indeed, what is bad or good is an ethical discussion. Some might look forward to times in which humans can be designed. Having an impact might not require an active stance. What if we contribute to the bad by just playing along the rules of the game instead of standing up for an alternative?

What role scientists should take within society cannot be answered, as there is no right answer. What is right or wrong depends on the worldview one adopts. I think I agree with Ciccotti et al. (1976) that part of the answer lies in abandoning the claim of neutrality. Then we need to declare our colors. Whether we ascribe to neoliberal economics and techno-fixes or to degrowth and solidarity. It would allow to discuss all positions as being ideological, instead of only accusing the alternative view of being ideological.

I think an important step is to disconnect academia from the capitalist mode of production. That might be a difficult endeavor. One option might be to extend the separation of powers to academia. Institutions need to be installed to grant academic independence from state and private business power. Knowledge and information must not be a means to maintain hierarchies. That means that access to knowledge must be free. That includes education as well as free access to scientific publications. Regarding education, questions of skill fragmentation need to be addressed. Similarly, universities should be a place for reflection, rather than producing workforce. That is a needed step if academia (and thus curricula) ought to be independent of private business interests.



[1] The debate whether he was just an opportunist, or an active part of the Nazi regime is still debated (Föger, B., & Taschwer, K. 2001; Kalikow, T. J. 2020).

[2] I had the chance to talk to people who contributed to IPCC reports, and they explained how the policy approval works. That in itself would provide sufficient discussion about the connection between science and politics. The balancing act scientists have to go through seems to be accepted by them as this process at least allows them to provide the basis for agreements like the Paris Agreement.

[3] If you are interested in the connection between market power and sustainability see Biely, K., & van Passel, S. (2022).

[4] The mechanistic view is applied to social life and human behavior. I have been aware of economics that portrays humans as rational (mechanistic) beings and behavioral economics trying to find rational explanations for ostensibly irrational behavior. I have been less familiar with discussions about free will. I stumbled upon this discussion recently, listening to the Huberman Lab podcast (Huberman, A. 2021). The view that humans have no free will (Sapolsky, R. 2023) is in opposition to views that consciousness and free will are central to the order of things (O'Brien, K. L. 2016). A mechanistic and deterministic view of human behavior indicates that our behavior is the result of past experiences as well as our biology. This deterministic view limits our ability to change our own lives. In general, the mechanistic view of human behavior puts hard limits on human agency and our ability to change the world. Such discussions are relevant for sustainability transitions as our ability to change our behavior connects to many facets of the sustainability transition.  

[5] If at all this is pushed into the landscape level, where it is treated as an external factor.



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