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Cowan Coventry takes a look at the public's deep-seated anxiety over the changes that science could make to the world, and calls for a new social contract to re-assert society's control over corporate-driven scientific and technological development.

This year's cinema blockbuster sees Terminator 3, the good cyborg, striding across the big screen battling against the threat of deadly machines built with artificial intelligence, with the latest scientific buzzword, nanotechnology, thrown in for good measure.

Arnie may be back — but in reality he has never been away. From Frankenstein to to evil cyborgs, the message is clear — we dabble with science and technology at our peril. At the heart of this notion is a deep-seated public fear of science opening Pandora’s box. As science and technology become ever more complex, ever smaller and ever closer to revealing the mysteries of life, the greater is the public’s anxiety.

It would be easy to dismiss this as tinsel-town scare-mongering to a public that cannot comprehend the complexities of modern science. But even establishment figures are voicing their concerns.

In June, for example, UK Science Minister David Sainsbury announced he was commissioning the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at nanotechnology and report on whether this new science demands new regulations.

Who's calling the shots?

How things have changed in the 30 years since economist E.F. Schumacher wrote the book Small is Beautiful. His ideas struck a cord with the 70s generation through its critique of orthodox economics, giant organisations and big projects, and its search for a more holistic and human-scale approach to how we live.

In contrast, today it sometimes seems that small — including nanotechnology — is not beautiful but potentially dangerous. On reflection, however, the key issue now, as then, is not so much of scale but of power.

Those with the power to fund scientific and technological research determine how science advances, and increasingly in a knowledge-intensive economy it is big corporate players who call the shots. Their motivation is not necessarily human advancement but to beat their competitors and to secure their commercial future.

As a result we are more likely to find a cure for baldness than for malaria, as a recent UN report on new technology said. The same report lamented that while private funding for scientific research increased by a quarter between 1990 and 1998 to a total of US$500 billion, public investment has stagnated.

The most striking case was in agricultural research with private companies spending US$10 billion a year compared to a mere US$0.4 billion raised by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)  — the world’s leading network of agricultural research institutions specialising in reducing hunger and poverty.

Harnessing science for the poor

Being cautious about the marketing and promotion of new science and technology by powerful corporate interests is not some 21st century Luddism as the term is conventionally understood. Rather, such caution often reflects a concern about whether technology will be harnessed for human needs and does not necessarily imply blind opposition to technological change.

In order to reconcile the tension between scientific optimism and growing public scepticism we need a new social contract to harness technology for sustainable development. In other words, we must direct science through public funding into areas that will meet the needs of the world’s poor, and not just the lifestyles of rich consumers.

For example nearly three billion people — about half of humanity — continue to rely on wood, dung and crop waste for their main energy need: cooking, a technology that has changed little since the Stone Age. The key to their future is more prosaic —  the availability of affordable, appropriate technologies.

A new international convention

Scientific and technological development is hugely exciting. It could, and should, have a major role to play in reducing poverty and restoring our ecosystems – if it can be harnessed to benefit the many rather than profit the few, and to prolong rather than foreshorten our custodianship of nature’s scarce resources.

A new social contract, backed up by legitimate and accountable international agencies, could re-assert some measure of societal control over corporate-driven scientific and technological development. One way to achieve this could be through a Swedish government proposal that the United Nations begin negotiations to create an ‘International Convention for Socio-economic and Environmental Evaluation of New Technologies’.

Such a convention, which would be legally binding and have its own governing body, would ensure independent assessment of emerging technologies through processes that guarantee public participation. It is a proposal that is getting support from think-tanks and many non-governmental organisations.

What we need is a movement to 'democratise' the priorities for scientific and technological development. If we can do that we can help to deliver the great win-win scenario of this century – to eradicate poverty without it costing the Earth.

Cowan Coventry is chief executive of the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), a non-profit organisation founded by E.F. Schumacher that aims to demonstrate and advocate the sustainable use of technology to reduce poverty in developing countries. ITDG is hosting a conference looking at science, technology and economics on 3 September 2003 in London —  click here for more information.

Photo credit: ITDG

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