Science for Citizens

By Krishna, V. V. | UNESCO Courier, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Science for Citizens


Krishna, V. V., UNESCO Courier


The time has come to negotiate a new social contract between science and society. At its heart: the notion of science as a public good, especially in countries of the South.

Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the Bhopal chemical plant disaster . . . the twentieth century bears many tragic scars to remind us that the progressive and emancipatory role of science and technology cannot be taken for granted.

Such terrible events, together with loss of life due to disasters in mines, factories and transport systems have triggered public disenchantment with science and technology. Indicators of these anxieties are the rise of anti-nuclear and environmental movements in the West and the growing influence of people's science movements (PSMs). In India, for example, PSMs such as the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) are struggling to inculcate such scientific values as sceptical questioning, to improve people's scientific literacy and to relate the results of science and technology to the basic needs of people.

For many, this disenchantment is fuelled by other trends. The problems are particularly acute in the developing countries, which account for less than 10 per cent of world expenditure in science and technology research.

As part of the globalization process, the conception of science as a "market good" has spread to these countries as a result of policies based on economic liberalization and privatization. This new conception of science, in which market-based criteria are applied to evaluate and regulate research, has challenged the prevailing mode of science as a public good, and there are clear signs that research serving the ideal of"science as a public good" is stagnating or being cut back. This is a serious problem in developing countries like India where over 80 per cent of research and development is funded from public sources.

In these countries, science academics and professional societies have a major social responsibility to safeguard science from commercial interests driven by the logic of knowledge as private property. The state should sustain science as a public good until these societies are able to absorb the shocks generated by market forces.

Some advances in science and technology challenge widely held ethical values. The information revolution has impinged on personal privacy, and the possibilities unleashed by the biological revolution interfere with the uniqueness and natural processes of human beings.

There are also signs that some scientific and technological innovations have a disturbing capacity for harm. In agriculture chemical pesticides and herbicides bearing long-term risks to human beings are used on a mass scale. Violent experiments are conducted on animals to test safety devices and chemical hazards. As the Indian scholar and environmentalist Kamla Chowdhry has observed, "the kind of technologies that the major nations of the world have been developing in the military, agriculture and consumer industries have led to 'violence', accompanied by loss of values such as compassion, helpfulness, reverence and spirituality."

Closely associated with the violent and hegemonistic aspects of modern science and technology are questions of equity and sustainable consumption. The idea of sustainable development cannot be divorced from the structure of consumption patterns in modern societies. The crucial issue here is whether developed countries are ready to cut down the consumption levels which are draining non-renewable resources.

All these issues lead to a single question: what can be done to ensure that science and technology meet the basic needs of society today, particularly in low- and medium-income countries. I believe that a new social contract needs to be made between science and society through the democratic process. There are four key ingredients in this process.

Decision-making. This should not be monopolized by a scientific and political elite, often joined by private corporate interests.

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