The impact of genetically modified crops, the role of information and communication technology in an economy or even the desirability of nuclear energy are just some of the major issues which generate public debate across countries.
In a bid to find answers to such issues which confront society today, the European Commission’s directorate-general for research mandated a group of 14 intellectuals, thinkers and academicians drawn from across the world to generate some insights, which were compiled in a report called Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously, published in 2007.
Finding answers: Jasanoff says this field of study draws insights from humanities to reveal how science and technology affect our world. Hemant Mishra / Mint
In a conversation on the sidelines of the Knowledge Society debate in Bangalore in January, Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and one of the co-authors of the report, explains why a European-Indian axis can offer a new way of integrating science and technology into everyday life. Edited excerpts:
What were the factors that led to the compilation of the report?
This is a field of study that is now about 30 years old—it looks at the relationship between science and technology and its interaction with society, termed STS. It essentially draws insights from humanities to reveal how science and technology affect our world. Nobody wants this to be an elite game; it is important for policymakers who sponsor science and technology to understand how this can improve human welfare, create jobs, combat disease and sickness, solve the problems of old age (and) of the handicapped. STS, as a field of study, looks to find answers to such questions.
What are the insights this report can offer to tackle the problems of developing markets such as India?
Post-war Europe, specifically Western Europe, has solved the basic problem of economic inclusion better than most others. It offers a model distinctly different—a European–Indian axis can, in some ways, offset the brutal market orientation that you see on the US-Chinese axis. In the old linear model, the state put money into basic science that is picked up by the private sector but the question today is whether such an approach is right and whether the public should be involved in choosing the direction of innovation in science and technology.
Europe, which is culturally and linguistically diverse, is closer to India and there are insights that India can offer as well—on how a sense of national identity can exist side by side with linguistic and cultural identity.
So, is there a need for a different model of development that integrates science with society?
There is a need for a model different from the earlier linear approach, where companies could claim intellectual property rights on an innovation. Now, when a new drug is discovered and marketed, the patient who participated in the clinical trial—should he get a part of the reward? Whose innovation is it anyway? These are some of the questions that require a new approach as science moves towards genetically altered products, for instance. What are the values to be preserved in society, what should be harmonized and how much difference should be tolerated—are all issues that must be debated. Europe, and countries such as India that manage contradictions, have a lot of insights to offer to a world society.
In the 20th century, science and technology made it possible to add the word “mass” ahead of many aspects of human life—transport, communication, entertainment and education, even destruction. Now, societies such as India, which work from the bottom up with vibrant NGO (non-government organization) networks, can offer a different model for the way society interacts with science and technology.