Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Introduction: From tradition to modernity
Jean-Jacques Salomon, Francisco R. Sagasti, and CÚline Sachs-Jeantet
The importance of science and technology
Science, technology, and society
The institutional and policy requirements
The new international context
Modernity and the uncertain quest
A "science" of some sort has existed in every society at all periods of human history. There can be no action, whether on natural or social phenomena, without a certain amount of rational empirical knowledge of the physical, living, and social world. Such knowledge has always played an important role in the development of societies, in their material as well as in their institutional and cultural achievements. However, it is in modern industrial societies that science and technology became the critical factor in the process of long-term economic growth and development. Many civilizations and societies have ignored or simply not paid attention to the notion of progress, but nevertheless have witnessed some degree of technical change that occurred over the very long term.
Expectations about prospects for improvement in the standard of living are a rather recent phenomenon, and they rose extremely slowly in the pre-industrial era. The idea of progress emerged in the context of the Judeo-Christian civilization and developed mainly with the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the Industrial Revolution that is still with us. Subsequently, economic growth became - for better or for worse - the basis of every society's hopes for the future, and science and technology became more and more instrumental in the fulfilment of these expectations. It is in this framework that policies for and through research and development (R&D) activities became more and more indispensable to the conception, elaboration, and implementation of broader policy and political objectives. Max Weber considered that the modern state is defined by bureaucracy, so that any current policy-making process can be defined as bureaucracy plus science: most political decisions today have recourse to scientific disciplines as regards methods, proofs, results, and even promises.
The importance of science and technology
Science and technology do indeed matter, and nowadays more and more. This should be self-evident, and yet in many developing countries, there is so little appreciation of this fact, among decision makers as well as the general public, that people either do not know or do not realize the benefits that a consistent and deliberate development strategy can derive from scientific and technical resources. Furthermore, people often overlook the fact that science and technology function successfully only within a larger social/political economic environment that provides an effective combination of non-technical incentives and complementary inputs in the innovation process. Science and technology are not exogenous factors that determine a society's evolution independently from its historical, social, political, cultural, or religious background.
As a recent report of the International Council for Science Policy Studies has emphasized:
technological change and innovation cannot have their socially beneficial effects if the cultural and political contexts are not prepared to absorb and incorporate them, and to achieve the structural transformations which will be required - a process which is much more difficult and complex than a mere transfer of resources (in this case, science and technology rather than capital) from the rich to the poor as a way of correcting imbalances. Science and technology have had an enormous impact on reducing the burden of physical work and improving social welfare. These contributions have only been made possible by the enormous methodological power of scientific reasoning which extends human ability to imagine and to develop alternatives. This being said, however, the development of science and technology is much more than the application of objective logic. It is built on a social consensus about goals and values. Science and technology exists only through human beings in action in certain contexts, and as such cannot be entirely value-free and neutral.
Unquestionably, scientific and technological progress has provided many benefits over the long term for the industrialized countries and in more recent times for developing countries. The most striking evidence of this in the industrialized countries is per capita income, which has increased almost tenfold in the space of two centuries. What is more, this purely quantitative indicator gives no idea of the individual and collective benefits that have accompanied this enormous rise in income: longer life, lower infant mortality, eradication of certain diseases, higher level of education, more rapid means of communication, better living and working conditions, greater social protection, more leisure opportunities, etc. Whatever inequalities persist, and however large (and sometimes growing) the pockets of poverty still to be found in the "rich" countries, the general level of material improvement is manifestly positive. This is all the more a reason to try to improve the current situation of most developing countries, whose conditions are such that the benefits of scientific and technological progress do not contribute to their development in the same way, at the same level or speed.
This reading of technical progress- the only one that is objective - is derived from the figures selected by economists for the purpose of calculating rises in gross national product and productivity. They can lead to irrefutable conclusions regarding the quality and standard of living from an economic standpoint, and this is already a decisive achievement. But such an assessment does not go beyond the quantitative facts concerning production, consumption, the working week, health and hygiene, life expectancy. As soon as one takes a broader view, the balance sheet of progress is more ambiguous and becomes a matter of subjective reactions and convictions. Our economic indicators are quite incapable of gauging the social costs and drawbacks (e.g. for the environment) associated with economic growth and technical progress. But they are also incapable of allowing for all the new knowledge and technical know-how - largely the products of progress- that have enabled human beings to extend their knowledge of nature and themselves, to reduce the level of superstition, and to act more rationally to achieve a better life. There are, of course, darker sides in this balance sheet of science and technology, from the arms race and the creation of a nuclear arsenal capable of "overkilling" mankind to the global environmental issues resulting from a process of industrialization that threatens the future of the whole earth. Nobody today can share the positivist optimism of the Enlightenment's concept of progress; the straight road to greater knowledge and material progress does not lead by the same token to the less direct road to "happiness" and "moral progress."
"Whether like the sociologist, Herbert Marcuse, or the novelist Simone de Beauvoir, we see technology primarily as a means of human enslavement and destruction, or whether, like Adam Smith, we see it primarily as a liberating Promethean force, we are all involved in its advance. However much we might wish to, we cannot escape its impact on our daily lives, nor the moral, social and economic dilemmas with which it confronts us. We may curse it or bless it, but we cannot ignore it." This was how Christopher Freeman began his book on The Economics of Industrial Innovation [5, p. 15]. Indeed, whether one likes it or not, the final trade-off is between poverty and growth. Where Freeman was concerned only with technology, we are concerned here with both science and technology.
In rejecting modern science and technology, Simone de Beauvoir is consistent in her deliberate preference for poverty. But most economists have tended to accept with Marshall that poverty is one of the principal causes of the degradation of a large part of mankind. Their preoccupation with problems of economic growth arose from the belief that the mass poverty of Asia, Africa and Latin America and the less severe poverty remaining in Europe and North America, was a preventable evil which could and should be diminished, and perhaps eventually eliminated. [5, p. 15]
Innovation is of importance for increasing the wealth of nations not only in the narrow sense of increased prosperity, but also in the more fundamental sense of enabling them to do things which have never been done before at all. It is critical not only for those who wish to accelerate or sustain the rate of economic growth in this and other countries, but also for those who are appalled by narrow preoccupation with the quantity of goods and wish to change the direction of economic advance, or concentrate on improving the quality of life. It is critical for the long-term conservation of resources and improvement of the environment. The prevention of most forms of pollution and the economic re-cycling of waste products are alike dependent on scientific and technological advance. [5, p. 16]
We quote at such length from Freeman, who was offered the first chair of science policy in the world and led with great success the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, not only to pay tribute to his pioneering work but also because we share his conviction - which is the guiding principle of this volume as a whole that there is no substitute for rational thought. We can learn to make better use of science and technology, but we cannot escape from them - unless of course we are prepared to give up all attempt to cope with the difficulties, tensions, and challenges of the world in which we have to live. Freeman added:
The famous first chapter of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations plunges immediately into discussion of "improvements in machinery" and the way in which division of labour promotes specialized inventions. Marx's model of the capitalist economy ascribes a central role to technical innovation in capital goods - "the bourgeois cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production". Marshall had no hesitation in describing "knowledge" as the chief engine of progress in the economy.
From Schumpeter to Samuelson, most economists today come to the same conclusion. The central importance of science and technology for economic progress is equally the main concern of this book.
Science, technology, and society
The social and cultural factors - the attitudes and the beliefs attached to economic, political, and social organization - influence the role that science and technology play in a given society. In their turn, the spread of new knowledge, products, and processes derived from scientific and technological progress transforms social structures, modes of behaviour, and attitudes of mind. The role of technical change in the process of economic growth is recognized by all theories of development. But what precisely is that role? In particular, what part did science and technology play in the economic and social transformations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution from its beginnings? Answers to these questions can be neither easy nor, consequently, swift, requiring as they do a subtle analysis, a long-term historical perspective, and reference to examples drawn from different branches of social science [2, 14].
Today the ways in which technical change transforms attitudes, institutions, and societies cannot be reduced to a simple linear relationship that is automatic, i.e. deterministic. Technology is one social process among others: it is not a question of technical development on the one hand and social development on the other, as if they were two entirely different worlds or processes. Society is shaped by technical change that, in turn, is shaped by society. Conceived by man, technology eludes his control only in so far as he wants it to. In this sense, society is defined no less by those technologies that it is capable of creating than by those it chooses to use and develop in preference to others .
Indeed, the present situation is very different from the expansion of mechanization encouraged by the development of machine tools and the steam engine in the nineteenth century. The spread of the "new technologies" (electronics, computers, telecommunications, as well as new synthetic materials and biotechnologies) creates far greater disparities than those that were possible between European countries at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, it involves much greater challenges than those tackled by nineteenth-century European societies (which were pre-industrial rather than purely agricultural), which achieved success thanks to their long preparation in basing their interpretation of natural phenomena and their handling of techniques on, among other things, mathematics, experimentation, measurement, calculation, and proof . On the one hand, in fact, the geopolitical situation in the world today is more complex, with events and actors constantly in motion on a continental scale, further augmented by the explosion in the means of communication themselves. On the other hand, the very tools (both conceptual and practical) that allow us, at least partially, to understand the world in which we live and to manipulate it, have continued - in large measure thanks to the spectacular progress of science and technology - to become ever more "sophisticated" and therefore difficult to master without specialist skills and qualifications.
It is against this background of the increasing complexity of problems as much as of methods that the "shock" of the new technologies has struck both developing and industrialized countries. For the latter - given the economic difficulties of the early 1980s, the very moderate rates of growth and the persistence of high unemployment- the adjustment to the new technical system that is just beginning to spread poses problems that are not very different from those that gave rise to the various stages of mechanization in the course of the nineteenth century. Whatever the social costs in terms of redundancies and job displacement, and however substantial the pockets of poverty that remain (and that sometimes even grow as a result of the crisis and uneven development), we are nevertheless dealing with societies where basic needs are by and large satisfied, and furthermore the resources available to train and retrain the labour force are considerable. It is not for nothing that they have been called "post-industrial" societies, characterized by the dominance of the service sector, the very rapid growth of information-related activities, and the large scale of investment in education and research.
By contrast, for most of the developing countries, the most basic needs for survival - food, health, shelter, and education - are far from having been met, so that the things that are perceived by the rich countries as essential can seem to the poorer countries like a display of luxury or a gimmick of a consumer society. In addition, they face the double pressures of the population problem, which seems unlikely to see major improvement before the end of the century, and the debt problem, which has become so dramatic that some countries can barely cope with payment of the interest charges. Against this background some people question the claim that the new technologies are what many developing countries should seek as a high priority in order to meet their real needs. And yet- given both the growing interdependence of economies and the internationalization of trade on the one hand and the undeniable opportunities to modernize and "catch up" that are offered by the new technologies on the other- it seems inconceivable that any country should choose to deprive itself of the products and the infrastructures that increasingly define the "nervous system" of the contemporary world and determine its functioning . In this connection one cannot underestimate the relevance and the value of "technology blending," i.e. the application of new technologies economically deployed to upgrade, modernize, or develop traditional activities (or to exploit natural resources that would otherwise remain untapped) while causing minimal social and economic disruption.
The rapid spread of a new technology does not of itself imply rapid social change. Other factors are involved, such as economic, social, and educational policies, the negotiations and agreements between interest groups, the well-established customs of daily life and social institutions, the society's values and traditions. Once again it needs to be stressed that science and technology are not independent variables in the process of development: they are part of a human, economic, social, and cultural setting shaped by history. Nothing is more revealing from this standpoint than the case-studies of technology blending, which indeed show precisely that the application of new technologies in traditional sectors is not simply a technological issue but more so an institutional, social, and political one . It is this above all that determines the chances of applying scientific knowledge that meets the real needs of a country. It is not the case that there are two systems - science and technology on one side and society on the other held together by some magic formula. Rather, science and technology exist in a given society as a system that is more or less capable of osmosis, assimilation, and innovation - or rejection - according to realities that are simultaneously material, historical, cultural, and political.
All in all, there is no inevitability in technical change: neither its pace nor its direction is predetermined (even though one cannot underestimate the strength of certain industrial and national lobbies in imposing their factories or products), and the success of an innovation is never certain. Technology influences economics and history, but it is itself the product and the expression of culture. The same innovations can therefore produce very different results in different settings, or at different periods within the same society. Technical change and technology itself thus make up a social process in which individuals and groups always make the determining choices in the allocation of scarce resources, an allocation that inevitably reflects the prevailing value system . At the same time, science and technology are not "black boxes" with principles and effects that leave unchanged the social structures of the societies that adopt them. They cannot be shipped like commodities: the process is never neutral, straightforward, or permanent; it demands levels of skill and often also perseverance, without which it constitutes a tool without a handle or a box of tricks without a key.
It is from this angle that the links between science, technology, and society in developing countries should be addressed. Beyond a certain threshold of resources, capital accumulation is never by itself a guarantee of growth. On the contrary, it is first and foremost the organization of society which in turn determines the organization of production - that allows a country to create and exploit its scientific and technical resources. These factors define the extent to which science and technology can operate to initiate and stimulate the process of development, and not vice versa. If science and technology are not external to this process, it is because they cannot themselves be either developed or used other than in a given economic and social framework. Extreme underdevelopment is in this sense the stage of development that puts no pressure on the social structure to become involved in scientific and technical research. And, lacking a favourable economic and social structure, even countries above this level may find themselves unable to take advantage of science and technology. If there is a lesson to be kept from history, and especially from the history of science, it is that the routes and institutions by which knowledge develops and is transmitted across a society, as much as across cultural frontiers, are never linear nor mechanistic.
The institutional and policy requirements
In what follows, we intend to highlight, first, the crucial importance of scientific and technical resources for social and economic development; second, the variety of situations facing the developing countries, especially as regards their endowment in terms of science and technology, and thus the fact that there is no single model for defining and implementing strategies; third, the contradictory, if not disappointing, results achieved by development economics, and the indispensable effort that needs to be made in order to integrate science and technology policy in an overall policy for economic and social development. Any attempt to make general statements on the subject runs the risk of failing to capture what is actually happening, for two reasons: national circumstances are too diverse for a single model to fit them all, and science and technology today are too complex to be dealt with in general terms. These words of warning apply equally to general discussion of the so-called "third world." And particularly with regard to technical innovation: "It is not possible to come to grips with the complexities of technology, its interrelations with other components of the social system, and its social and economic consequences, without a willingness to move from highly aggregated to highly disaggregated modes of thinking" . In other words, any analysis of the interaction between social organization and technical change must always be refined to take account of each country's characteristics, especially its relative level of scientific and technical assets, the nature and quality of those assets (higher education and training institutions, laboratories, etc.), and the use made of them in the framework of its specific economic, political, and social conditions.
Whatever its pace and level, development is a journey between tradition and modernity. In this dynamic process, quantitative indicators are always relative: development is never finished and certainly is never achieved once for all, nor is the process measurable only quantitatively. Neither "take-off" nor increasing industrialization can ever be a reliable guarantee against slipping back, as the example of eastern Europe shows. In addition, although the available data provide points of comparison, we are not dealing with a scale of values derived from a single, comprehensive and unassailable theoretical model. The journey takes time, incurs costs, requires the making of choices, and so demands a resolute collective determination not simply to cope with the risks arising from change but to try, from a long-term perspective, to guide change in a particular direction.
As Gunnar Myrdal  has emphasized, the terminology used by the social sciences is not neutral. We now talk about "developing countries" rather than "underdeveloped countries" because we want to play down the realities of structural imbalance and stress instead the chances of catching up. The courteous language of diplomacy suggests that there is merely a short time-lag separating the industrialized countries from those that are not there yet: all that is needed in order to bridge the gap is to adopt the "right" economic policy. The term "developing country" is illogical, according to Myrdal, because it conveys the idea that there are countries that are not developing. Besides, it gives no indication of whether a country wants to develop or is taking practical steps to foster its development. In this sense, the first requirement- not just in terms of chronology but above all of principles- can be summed up in the determination to try to develop, not so much with a view to breaking with the past (or at least not with all earlier traditions) as to acquiring the means to modernize. These means are partly but not entirely economic; institutional, social, political, and cultural factors also count. The development process is a package in which success depends on many different elements in combinations that can never be determined by economic indicators alone.
The most general lesson is that technical change does not transform societies independently of other factors that are not related to technology as such. The Industrial Revolution witnessed the start of a new type of growth, which was connected with a succession of technical innovations that speeded up the pace of change, although their origins and development depended on a wide range of nontechnical factors. In Europe, capitalistic competition encouraged technical developments geared to increasing labour productivity. These developments happened and were able to spread only because the economic, institutional, and social circumstances were favourable. In their turn, these circumstances were altered by the progress of science and technology and then influenced the rate and direction of technical innovation. The process was extremely complex, as Landes  stresses in the conclusion to his history of the Industrial Revolution: "There is a wide range of links, direct and indirect, tight and loose, exclusive and partial, and each industrializing society develops its own combination of elements to fit its traditions, possibilities, and circumstances. The fact that there is this play of structure, however, does not mean that there is no structure."
In this delicate and uncertain "play of structure," which is affected by the historical and cultural background of each country, the institutional and political prerequisites for making good use of the scientific and technical resources available mainly relate to these noneconomic factors. The growing interdependence of nations and the emergence of the world economy have not abolished the individuality of cultures and societies. The journey from tradition to modernity raises the same question for all developing countries, but they are the only ones in a position to reply, in line with the decisions that they take themselves about science and technology as about everything else. This question is double-edged: how to modernize without sacrificing tradition? how to preserve tradition without compromising modernization? More than ever, the hurry-burly of politics that we are witnessing as we approach the end of the twentieth century warns any developing country to be sensitive to the implications of this question.
Contents - Previous - Next