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Content archived on 2024-05-29

Researching Inequality through Science and Technology

Final Report Summary - RESIST (Researching Inequality through Science and Technology)

Many studies in science and technology studies have established that science and technology (S&T) do not merely cause or alleviate inequality, but that the most pervasive and obdurate sources of social distribution are enshrined and entrenched in S&T systems. Because of this, the development of a global knowledge economy, in which S&T play an increasing part, seems likely to increase inequality both within societies and between them. This makes it both important and urgent to understand processes that contribute to the increase in inequality through the role of S&T, but equally to understand S&T processes that can contribute to mitigating inequality. The task of our research project, RESIST was to address both these challenges, and produce research that would inform approaches to S&T policy for Europe, and for developing countries. In this way, we hoped to contribute to policy and practice that may achieve a better balance between S&T for economic growth and competitiveness, and S&T for social and economic inclusion, the complementary aims of the Lisbon agenda.

We focused on three forms of inequality, structural, covering capacities and resources in S&T; representational, covering the distribution of voice and power in determining direction for S&T and accountability for outcomes; and distributional, covering the ways in which the goods and harms S&T produced were spread across countries and groups. Our empirical cases and policy analysis took up four issues where these inequalities were most likely to be reflected, and thus where there was significant scope for remediation: policy frameworks; international migration of the highly skilled and its impacts on capacity building in disadvantaged locales; new accountability mechanisms; and the economic and social impact of emerging technologies.

We are recommending that national governments consider more explicitly the articulation of broader goals for the innovation process (SCoPP) than is nowadays often the case (KEPP). Furthermore, we recommend that such an articulation is accompanied by the development of procedural arrangements as well as the organisation of information (indicators, statistics) that such a broad approach requires. In addition, a rethinking is of the most adequate organisation of government and its supporting bureaucracy so that broad developmental innovation approaches are easier to carry through.

A broader set of STI indicators is needed that address the impact of S&T on inequalities and social cohesion, and on the factors that affect this process. Such indicators should incorporate wider social indicators addressing issues of impact (such as inequality, health, education, environment, happiness), as well as indicators that reflect the processes through which inequalities are limited, or reproduced. These include indicators related to institutional diversity, inclusive processes and their effects, diverse knowledge inputs, public engagement in S&T. Obviously, these indicators should not replace existing ones, but should be added.

The accountability of science and technology processes should be a more explicit concern of STI policies. Accountability should not just be framed in terms of what can be quantitatively measured with existing science indicators but also with respect to the overall goals and whether these are being achieved. Transparency of processes of STI policy and who is responsible should be at the heart of this. Yet, accountability of processes in itself does not guarantee outcomes, these still require scrutiny.

Forms of accountability based on direct public engagement should be privileged over indirect ones where such is feasible and potentially effective. Such forms may be combined with indicator-based forms of accountability where appropriate. Participatory procedures, which allow for bottom-up contributions must take into account that the move from consultative to deliberative modes carries the strong implication that the decision making process has binding powers, i.e. that consultation is not yet another form of political marketing.

The organisation of accountability as an ongoing concern should be built into arrangements and procedures in designing specific projects and programmes aimed at mobilising science and technology against inequality. Accountability to target populations and groups and participants should be treated with at least the same priority and importance as accountability to donors and agencies. Recognisably, independent expertise will be very important in processes and designs for accountability, but it should support participative accountability and not be a substitute for it.

At the international (global) level questions of development, governance, participation and accountability is essential for the needs of the South, as well as those of the North. In a globalising knowledge economy, all countries are expected to develop. To juxtapose one part of the world as developing or underdeveloped against another part that is already developed, misses a key feature of the currently emerging multipolar and interdependent world.

The capacity to participate, deliberate and to give and ask for accountability does not emerge spontaneously; specific training procedures, such as the citizenship schools implemented in some experiences of participatory budgeting, should be organised to enhance citizen participation. However, there is a central paradox here, in that such training may frame issues, select issues and modes of contribution in a way that limits the extent of participation and the range of outcomes that can be achieved.

Public interventions on emerging technologies can usefully incorporate two concepts that have been used across the RESIST project. On the one hand, policies should try to reduce the representational inequalities that now characterize high-technology decision processes. Different groups within society experience the same new technology differently. To maximise benefits, a variety of groups should have a chance to shape technology itself and advise on the way it is incorporated into society. On the other hand, structural inequalities underlie all of our cases, gaps in capabilities that affect the absorptive capacity of various countries, that is, their ability to use the technology effectively, broadly, and on their own terms. Our cases reflect structural inequalities not only the lack of relevant scientists and engineers, but also differences in basic education and living conditions. Interestingly, by looking one technology at a time, we have shown that countries do have the option to develop pockets of expertise to increase absorptive capacity in relation to a particular technology. The work on alternative STI strategies through SCoPP1 also suggests that reducing inequalities can start in the conception of technological projects themselves. Countries that find the technical characteristics and economic relationships of current technologies difficult or unworkable should apply their inventive capabilities to discovering versions that work in a broader range of circumstances, including theirs.

Our cases suggest that the new technologies are most likely to shift jobs from one category to another, demanding somewhat higher skills, rather than to cause wholesale unemployment. These results provide a cautionary note to counter the claims in developed countries that new technologies will generate enormous numbers of new jobs.

The uneven distribution of the costs of new technologies certainly features in our results, mostly in financial terms rather than in terms of health and safety risks. Our results suggest that policymakers should be vigilant about uneven distributions of costs. Regulators have a particular responsibility to spread costs and prices fairly. When emerging technologies produce major improvements that can be provided at low cost to large numbers of people it is important for public policy to seek to create the conditions for benefits to spread. Sometimes that may be public procurement, as in health service provision of recombinant insulin. But the issue may also loop back to the discussion of business opportunities. Government can use competition to bring down prices and extend markets.

In summary, the real worlds of emerging technologies are diverse, but all carry within them the possibility of more equal outcomes for the world's households.