Asia & Pacific

  • We need a 'slow race' for science-based development


Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones argue that enhanced citizen engagement is essential in making technology work for the poor.

Across the world, in both developed and developing countries, governments are realising that citizen engagement is vital to ensure that science and technology meets people's needs.

We live in a time of unprecedented international interest and investment in linking science and technology with development. Rapid advances in information technology, biotechnology and nanoscience hold promise of new drugs, vaccines and better seeds, and lay claim to the term 'breakthrough' as solutions to poverty, illness and environmental degradation.

The science races are on. But who will win the prizes, and who will be left behind? And will this extra investment in science and technology really work for the poor?

We argue that there are two dominant global science races. First, there is the race to the top in the global economy, in which science and technology are seen as a spur to economic growth. The poor will benefit through the trickle-down of economic benefits, argue this race's proponents, pointing to the exploding economies of China and India.

Second, there is the race to the universal fix: breakthroughs in science and technology with a direct and widespread impact on poverty. This race fits with a view of development as a matter of common interest and global responsibility, best exemplified through the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Yet a third, less glamorous but ultimately more important race to citizens' solutions is being overlooked. This 'slow race' emphasises pathways to poverty reduction that may involve science and technology, but are specific to local contexts.

It recognises that technological fixes are not enough to achieve social progress, and that social, cultural and institutional inputs are also key. It sees science and technology as part of a bottom-up, participatory process of development, in which citizens take centre stage.

The core challenge is how to involve people - especially the marginalised — in decisions about innovation, regulation and technology development.

This requires a new vision of citizenship that goes beyond public engagement with science. It needs more active engagement with broader questions about how science and technology agendas are framed, the social purposes they serve, and who stands to gain — or lose — from them. It must also involve a participatory approach to innovation, and attention to issues of access to and control of the technology.

The increasing dominance of the private sector may lead science and technology away from pro-poor, locally-embedded priorities. Arrangements such as public-private partnerships could potentially redress the balance. But they must be critically evaluated, and in many instances are no substitute for publicly-funded initiatives.

Developing country settings often pose huge challenges for regulating technology, which cannot proceed solely through the transfer of models from Europe and the United States. To make technology work for the poor, policymakers must encourage innovative and participatory approaches to 'inclusive regulation' that build on local understandings of risk and uncertainty.

At the same time, policymakers should rethink their assumptions about what constitutes 'sound science' a politically loaded term. Global food safety standards, for example, are assessed in relation to chemical composition, regardless of social and ecological context, both of which are equally valid scientific considerations (see Evaluating the acceptability of GM crops: the scope for autonomy in developing countries). Developing country agendas must be allowed a place at the standard-setting negotiation table.

So what are the next steps in the slow race to citizens' solutions? One priority for the international development community should be to set up a series of 'citizens' commissions for science and technology futures' to facilitate wider deliberation on technology choice and modes of regulation.

The commissions would vary geographically and have diverse focuses. Some would be long-term, others temporary. And they would make use of a variety of media, from face-to-face interactions to Internet blogs and virtual deliberative communities.

To work well, the commissions should go hand-in-hand with developing citizens' capacity to access and reflect on the diverse sources of information about technology and its implications. They would also need to link up to existing institutions, and finds ways of adapting to particular political cultures.

The commissions would learn lessons from past experiences with, for example, citizens' juries, participatory scenario workshops and multi-stakeholder dialogues, such as those convened by organisations such as Practical Action to discuss the challenges of new biotechnologies and nanotechnologies.

But they must go beyond one-off, staged events to become part of an institutionalised public reflection on the future of science, technology and development.

Inter-governmental agencies, aid agencies and large philanthropic organisations are gearing up to fund and implement science-based development. It is thus ever more vital that policymakers put the institutional and capacity conditions in place for the 'slow race' to be run.


The authors are members of the Knowledge, Technology and Society Team at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, United Kingdom. They are the authors of ‘The Slow Race: Making technology work for the poor’*, published last month by the London-based think tank Demos.