Researching link between inequality and S&T

October 25, 2006

Brussels, 24 October 2006

Although the world is getting richer, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, those who have access to medicine and those who do not, and those that live in a secure environment and those at risk. Often the blame for society's social and economic disparities is placed on geopolitical forces or governments and ill-thought policies. Rarely are science and technology singled out as one of the root causes.

But according to ResIST (Researching Inequality through Science and Technology), an EU funded project, S&T policies and practices should undergo further scrutiny in this regard. Funded under the 'Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society' section of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the project focuses on whether and how S&T are contributing to or helping to reduce inequalities today, and looks at what scope there is for policy change.

Peter Healey of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization in the UK is coordinator of the ResIST project. 'S&T are often overlooked when talking about issues of inequality,' explains Mr Healey. This is mainly because by virtue of their entrenchment in S&T systems, these sources of inequalities are concealed from recognition. They are overlooked because they are regarded as technical issues, not readily accessible to social scientific analysis. 'This has created a gap in policy analysis,' says Mr Healey.

The aim of the project is to help make explicit the linkages between S&T policies and practices and the range of distributive outcomes, good and bad, and then to explore the policy choices and accountability mechanisms which become available. 'The name of our project is slightly ambiguous because we see that S&T polices and practices may be the root causes together with other social factors to increasing inequalities, but through their constructive use, these policies may also help to remediate them,' says Mr Healey.

There are several reasons, according to Mr Healey, as to why it has become so critical to examine the relationship between S&T and inequalities. The most notable is the increasingly important role which S&T plays in economic and social development. In Europe, S&T are seen as the main drivers for the creation of a knowledge economy. This extends the role of S&T into politics. 'With the emergence of a knowledge economy, we have to understand how the distribution of knowledge is linked to life inequalities,' says Mr Healey.

Linked to the development of a knowledge economy is economic migration. Highly trained personnel, particularly in health care, are attracted from poor countries to richer countries with a strong knowledge economy. This results in a knowledge deficit in poorer countries which are unable to retain their high-skilled professionals.

There is also the accelerated emergence in recent times of technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnologies which, proponents claim, can transform our capacity to control nature at a fundamental level. 'The risk with these technologies is that they may aggravate inequalities,' says Mr Healey, creating virtually unbridgeable technological divides like 'a big black hole into which societies might fall.'

While accepting that some developing countries such as India have made S&T a platform for positive social and economic change, Mr Healey says that there are also some caveats. 'S&T practices may have brought some developing countries closer to developed countries, but they have also helped to widen the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' within those countries,' he argues.

Inequalities have also become institutionalised in international trade and in the distribution of goods and services to the point that they are completely overlooked, says Mr Healey. Mundane practices also have redistributive effects. For example, recycling of electronic or household waste may contribute to the efficient use of natural resources and the reduction of pollution in the originating 'donor' countries, but it is offset by the workers who have to handle the products in destination countries. 'They may be exposed to a variety of chemical, physical or biological risks.'

In addition to examining the processes that contribute to the increase of inequalities through S&T, the project is also looking at three broad areas of inequalities which emerge. The first is structural inequality: gender and racial institutional inequalities still characterise many national and regional systems of innovation. The second is distributional inequality: how the outcomes of S&T are distributed. 'A good example is antiretroviral drugs. 'Are they readily available and affordable for those that really need them most?' asks Mr Healey. Finally, inequality can also refer to the lack of representation of key stakeholders in the S&T system. 'This is basically about who gets to sit at the table and who makes the science policy decisions,' adds Mr Healey.

The challenge of the project will be to integrate its analysis into research policy in Europe and developing countries. 'We will look at how we can feed our work into the Seventh and Eighth Framework Programmes,' says Mr Healey. 'These, after all, are not only creators of knowledge; they are also distributors of new technical capacities in the form of human resources, infrastructure and intellectual property rights.'

Given that the rationale behind EU research is primarily to enhance economic competitiveness, Mr Healey says that it could lead to further inequalities. To avoid this, he says that the Lisbon agenda should be considered within a wider context. This would allow economic growth and development to continue in a manner which is environmentally, socially, culturally and political sustainable not only in Europe, but globally - a 'balanced growth'.

With partners from the South, namely South Africa and Mozambique, Mr Healey says that the project may help European partners re-discover innovation models which find a balance between the social and economic, and the global and local. Mozambique is exemplary. S&T is bottom-up and local structures like schools are used to provide the population with innovation services.

Other partners in the project include new EU Member States such as Malta, and the candidate country Turkey. 'It should be noted that the project is not about development issues but inequalities and these exist between the EU-15 and EU-25 and candidate countries.' The project will also look at S&T policy and practices in Latin America and the Caribbean islands.'

By the end of the project, Mr Healey hopes to make a number of recommendations on finding equity in the broader framework S&T conditions, such as intellectual property rights, human resources development, and social accountability and governance. 'Our project is ambitious,' says Mr Healey. 'We don't expect to achieve everything, but it is important to open a space up for a dialogue about S&T policy and its relationship with social inequalities.

For more information about the ResIST project, please click: here

For more on 'Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society', go to:


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