Thursday, 18 January 2007

DEMOS ATLAS OF IDEAS: SOME UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

BY IAN SCOONES, co-director of the STEPS Centre

A set of new reports from Demos, a London-based think-tank, argue that there is a new geography of science and innovation emerging, with China, India and South Korea at the forefront of a new global knowledge economy. But many unanswered questions are raised.

While showing different patterns and trends, the reports demonstrate the importance of an increasingly networked pattern of science and innovation, with links fostered by research and development centres of multi-national companies and global universities and peopled by a growing circulation of skilled Asian diaspora talent. The growth of knowledge-based industries – whether in software, biotechnology or nanotechnology – is transforming economies and becoming an engine of growth and development in Asia. This revolution in turn has major implications for developed countries, like the UK, who once were seen as both the source and destination of most science and innovation.

But many unanswered questions are raised. Innovation of what, for whom? What are the distributional effects of such rapid technology-led growth? What are the down-side consequences of the knowledge industry boom? What new politics of exclusion and disenfranchisement are generated? Will recent trends be projected into the future? Some of these issues were debated during the sessions of the launch conference held in London this week.

For example, on questions of innovation, while a globally networked pattern of science and innovation – a new geography – is undoubtedly emerging, is this one that, as Dr R. Mashelkar, former head of India’s CSIR suggested, uses “Indian IQ for foreign IP” or one that genuinely results in innovations which deliver dividends for local economies and societies? For a growth-oriented, science-led innovation system, led by multi-national companies through networks of out-sourced contract research, may well produce export revenues and employment for a small number of the skilled elite and returnee migrants, but its broader benefits may well be constrained both geographically and socially.

The expectation and hype about the Asian knowledge economy is certainly fuelled by media hyperbole, venture capital speculation and policy spin, but what are the obstacles? Can it be sustained? Some of these were discussed. For example, with intellectual property rights often tied up by multi-national companies based in the north, there are some, but relatively few, options for local start-ups and businesses to move up the value chain.


And innovation systems in India and China for example – where private and public basic research is linked to business and market applications – remain, as the reports concede, weak and uncoordinated. It must be asked: is the public or private commitment and resources really there to really make these systems the lead innovators in a global economy?

The race to the top in the global economy is an alluring goal – and the successes of India and China are seen as models for many poorer nations – but will these pathways of development result in broad based growth and the reduction of poverty for hundreds of millions of people? Are there not other pathways which need a look in, where science and technology and locally-rooted innovation systems respond to the more immediate livelihood needs of poorer people?


Such a ‘slow race to citizens’ solutions’ is often not given the limelight – and is largely off the radar in much policy debate – but, as argued in another recent Demos paper, needs much greater attention: not only in Africa where the issues of poverty and deprivation are so stark, but also in Asia, where poverty and inequality remain a major block on human well-being and development.

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Monday, 15 January 2007

SCIENCE, KNOWLEDGE, POWER & POLITICS: A NEW VIEW


“It's no longer enough to think about power in a top-down manner – the people on whom, and in relation to whom, power gets exercised are an indispensable part of it,” said Sheila Jasanoff, explaining her theory of civic epistemology.

Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University took to the floor to give the second in the new STEPS Centre seminar series and promptly hung a huge question mark over conceptions of knowledge, power, politics, expertise, objectivity and democracy.

“Civic epistemology allows me to get at culture, and more specifically political culture. It helps me understand why there are do often differences in agenda setting, social priority setting, ways in which conflicts resolved, differences between what societies say they are concerned about and what happens,” said Jasanoff.
Her concept can be used as a potential explanatory resource. The concept is one answer to the rethinking of social and political thought based the public understanding of science said Jasanoff in her seminar entitled Civic Epistemology as a Research Tool: The Uses of Theory.

And she firmly believes you can take civic epistemology away from regulatory culture and put it into other contexts. It could be used to compare what happened in the wake of three post-disaster inquiries for instance: 9/11 in US, BSE in UK and Bhopal in India, for example, and went on to explain how.

To take ‘knowledge society’ seriously it has to be politicised, said Jasanoff. ‘Knowledge society’ must be thought of as a political as well as a sociological concept – not only as a class of people who produce knowledge, but of states and state-like institutions where knowledge is made, often as part of government.

So if we are going to politicise ‘knowledge society’, we have to shift our thoughts from the governors to the governed – “we have to rethink democratic theory,” she explained. This means rethinking what the labels of normal political science - representation, voice – mean.

If states are going to depend on instruments of science and technology then citizens have to be able to recognise the demonstrations of this knowledge by the state. It takes an “appropriately reasoning citizen” to carry out public understanding of science in a democratic way, she said.

But among the problems of public understanding of science framework, is the deficit model, said Jasanoff: by saying pub doesn’t understand science you are representing the public as lacking in appropriate reasoning and competence.

So how do you measure public understanding of science or law, both of which are very privileged forms of knowledge? Civic epistemology is a partial answer, said Jasanoff.

To explore her theory further Jasanoff has done a comparative study of political cultures looking at the differences between the US, UK and Germany, the stages of decision making and how knowledge figures at each stage. She has also compared ways of public-knowledge-making, public accountability, demonstration, objectivity and expertise.

Jasanoff is at pains to point out that she is not trying to characterise or label the three countries in the terms of her results, but to throw up a potential way of “making the world”.

In the area of expertise, for instance, Jasanoff has come up with what she terms the ‘three bodies’ approach: an expert can be a sole expert advisor; a collective body, such as a committee; or a formal reservoir of knowledge bodies that experts draw on.

The UK government, for example, has come up with code of practice on how to be a science advisor. And that UK policy response coincides with the results of Jasanoff’s comparative study that in the UK emphasis is on the expert.

She believes her comparative analysis of expertise could help in giving guidance on policy advice in this area, that the analysis does have practical applications.

In her comparative study she looked at how each country viewed objectivity and if it is viewed as being “from somewhere, everywhere or nowhere”. If knowledge is a place, so objectivity could mean being no place.

For example, she found that the US has a preference to believe the way to achieve objectivity is to take all interests out: “In the US the idea of and ‘Eden before the fall’ where perfect knowledge is attained is still a dominant idea and underlies a lot of American thinking,” said Jasanoff.

She believes we can see civic epistemology at work in the world in the words and actions of political agents, of citizens and of the media.

“Civic epistemology is at our fingertips and toe-tips – it is not something we have to look hard for,” said Jasanoff. “To me the whole interest of looking at this stuff is that it is an open-ended set of questions.”
She concluded with a series of on-going questions an speculations, among them whether civic epistemology only meaningfully constitutes at the level of the statistics; how to deal with variations within states; are variations cross-national, or is related to categories, states, social movements and corporations; and how many civic epistemologies are there?
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Tuesday, 9 January 2007

PRO-POOR RICE FARMING METHOD FACES HOSTILITY

A new system of rice farming that is “good for poverty, good for the environment and costs less” is facing “antagonism, indifference and hostility” from the mainstream agricultural and scientific industry.

Farmers in Asia are experiencing 50-100% increase in yields from the new system that costs less and can better withstand the environmental challenges of the 21st century – such as declining water and land supply and increasing energy costs and climate change.

But despite the potential of SRI (System of Rice Intensification) to revolutionise the lives of poorer farmers, its spread is being held back by lack of support from the agricultural mainstream, said
Norman Uphoff, former director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.

“That SRI did not emanate from the formal science system may be one reason for the hostility with which it has viewed by some rice scientists.” said Uphoff, speaking at the inaugural STEPS Centre seminar. “Scepticism I can understand, but we’ve had antagonism, indifference and hostility.”

However Uphoff is undeterred: “For me the most important question is how we deal with hunger and poverty…I’ve heard myself described as evangelical (about SRI) and I plead guilty. There are possibilities here to feed the world that have not been realized.”

Uphoff is so convinced of the potential for
SRI that he has left behind his roots as a pioneering political scientist to concentrate on investigating and promoting SRI as an alternative to current methods of farming that, relying heavily on agrochemicals and fossil fuel, are inadequate for the 21st century, believes Uphoff.

The benefits of agroecological alternatives, such as SRI, include: smaller-scale operations; energy saving and energy-efficiency; use of existing plant genome and biological processes; greater resistance to stress, such as drought, storms, pests and disease; use of organic material and methods; and emphasis on local production and consumption; and can operate without subsidisation and are accessible to poorer people, explains Uphoff.

Twenty-seven countries are now using SRI methods – which forsake the traditional flooding of rice fields and crowded planting in favour of younger and wider-spaced seedlings and no flooding. Bhutan and Iran are the latest countries to begin SRI farming and the 28th, Burkina Faso, is not far behind.

And although Chinese scientists and the China National Rice Research Institute and are satisfied SRI works, the International Rice Research Institute IRRI) has yet to take up SRI. “The IRRI is not receptive at all, it is not even looking at SRI,” said Uphoff. “I think we’re a real threat to their current scientific and funding strategy.”
“We are not going to replace modern agriculture, because there is a lot of vested interest in it,” said Uphoff. “But we have to shift the paradigm. We have to be empirical and explainable, because people’s lives are at stake.”
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