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Stakeholder participation in technology assessment

In current discussions of development strategies in developing countries, there is much interest in ways of ensuring adequate participation of "stakeholders" in arriving at social decisions about both technology choices and more broadly about alternative development paths. The term "stakeholders" covers suppliers and users of technology, including external donors or multinational companies as well as many different internal groups potentially affected by possible unforeseen side-effects of the policies chosen. Much can be learned about the processes for stakeholder involvement from recent experience in industrialized countries where the tradition and practice of public participation has come a long way in the last two decades, and is still evolving [12, 19].

For stakeholder participation to be more than symbolic, decision makers must be genuinely willing to allow others a say, to encourage both public understanding of the (sometimes complex) issues and constructive public debate. Indeed, one of the most debated issues regarding the social management and control of technology is the degree and form of public participation in decisions about its development, deployment, and regulation [15]. There is always the fear that, the greater the level of participation the greater the risk that any single group that perceives its particular interests or values to be adversely affected by the application of technology will be able to exercise a de facto veto over a technical enterprise almost regardless of the consequence for other affected interests or values. An intensely felt opposition from a small minority might outweigh the diffuse, unmobilized interests of a large majority. The opposite could also occur if the majority has an effective and well-connected political advocate; i.e. the legitimate rights of a minority could be overridden by a well-represented majority.

Encouraging stakeholder participation means sharing information at an early stage in the proceedings and not when it is too late to alter the outcome. Three broad categories of government response can be distinguished: some try to give the public better access to information; some try both to improve the information available to decision makers and to find out how the public feels about issues; others encourage more direct public involvement in decision-making. Examples of the first category are the Swedish study groups, or the German and Austrian public information campaigns. Many countries have established consultative bodies that fall in the second category (for instance the French Commission Informatique et Libertés or the Collège de la prévention des risques technologiques); the European Community has its FAST programme for forecasting and evaluation, and both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe have means of educating their members and the public on technological issues. The most radical approach is to hold judicial hearings or public referendums, as in Austria, Denmark, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland. The three methods obviously overlap and may be combined in various ways depending on the topic of concern, the size as well as the political and cultural traditions of the country. None of them will deal with all the problems or bring an end to all controversy, but at least they remove some of the uncertainties.

Features for successful stakeholder dialogues

The following characteristics, based on the United States' experience, are important features of any technology assessment institution, as, for example, one designed to inform the development process within a country or within a multilateral development organization.

  1. The system represents a compromise between the objectives of delivering its products within a reasonable time and securing a wide diversity of both expert and public inputs. The project advisory panel system does not allow for registration of all political interests, but it does help to ensure a broader set of perspectives than would be considered in a more strictly expert government "in-house" process. It serves to moderate and temper a technocratic process without undermining its intellectual integrity.
  2. The relationship of the OTA to the substantive Congressional committees and its accountability to a non-partisan Technology Assessment Board ensures greater political relevance, and the framing of issues in a way more likely to meet the needs of the policy process and secure a better match between the formulation of issues as perceived by the public and as perceived by experts.
  3. An agenda that is negotiated iteratively between the OTA staff and the professional staffs of individual Congressional committees ensures a greater commitment to the resulting study agenda by both experts and politicians, and also tends to create a receptive audience for the resultant work products.
  4. The OTA process is not necessarily geared to concrete action by either the legislature or the executive, so that it is difficult to prove how much it actually influences national policy. Such effects as there are tend to be gradual and cumulative and to occur as much through defining the terms of debate as through the direct impact of specific recommendations or policy options. However, this result is probably more consistent with the true nature of the policy process, which is more a cumulative "social learning" process than a single transaction between experts and society.
  5. An early warning function of identifying problems and issues before they were high on the political agenda was one of the original purposes of the OTA. In practice this is somewhat diluted by leaving the initiative for requesting studies in the hands of Congressional committees whose interest generally signals that the issue has already arrived on the political agenda, although this disadvantage tends to lessen over time as mutual trust between the Congress and the OTA director and staff grows with experience and continual interaction.
  6. The OTA process probably owes its comparative success partly to the good match of its organization and procedures to the separation of powers in the US Constitution, which in recent decades has meant that Congress has acquired a professional staff capable of assimilating and processing a great deal of specialized information and of reinterpreting it for its political masters. This makes it rather expensive and perhaps less adaptable to parliamentary systems that do not have large staff resources. On the other hand, the greater congruence of political priorities and values between the executive and legislature in parliamentary systems may make this problem less serious than it might appear at first.
  7. The OTA staff has a high level of professional competence combined with a generalist orientation that does not instinctively look for answers restricted to its own domain of expertise, and is able to appeciate and make effective use of expertise outside its own boundaries. This enhances the match between the expert policy process and the political process.

Concluding remarks

The motivation for technology assessment would be somewhat different for a developing country than for a fully industrialized country, depending on its particular stage of development. In the first place, a developing country would face some of the cumulative environmental and resource depletion consequences of the previous development of the industrialized world, e.g. global environmental impacts such as global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion, or the exhaustion of the most accessible reserves of nonrenewable resources. Also, in many cases the local environment is already overstressed by population densities and degrees of urbanization that have no precedent in the earlier history of the present industrialized world at a corresponding stage of its historical development. Offsetting this is the fact that the presently developing countries have access, at least potentially, to many modern technologies, such as biotechnology and information technology, that may allow them to bypass many of the development stages that the industrialized world had to go through. Furthermore, the expectations of these populations for quality of life, especially in terms of environmental amenities (as opposed to necessities for sustaining life, or carrying capacity) are and will remain considerably lower than those of industrialized country populations, at least for a generation or so. On the other hand, environmental quality necessary to sustaining productivity of the biosphere for human use is likely to be a more urgent requirement in developing countries than in developed countries.

What this means is that the concept of "environmentally sound technology" or even sustainable development may mean something quite different in developing and developed countries, with productivity considerations playing a larger role in developing countries and ethical, aesthetic, and psychological considerations playing a larger role in the industrialized countries. Since a larger proportion of economic activities in developing countries than in industrialized countries are sensitive to the state of the environment, TA may be more of a necessity for sustainable economic growth in developing countries than it is for already industrialized countries, though the capacity for it is less. Whereas failure of foresight may lead to loss of quality of life in industrialized countries, the same lack of foresight could lead to social and economic catastrophe in a country at an earlier stage of development.

Increasingly, scientific matters are becoming dependent on government support and policies - and so are no longer the researchers' preserve. Science and technology have become both more noticeable because of their repercussions and more open to scrutiny because of the public money invested in them. Public opinion is now more aware of government influence on the direction of national R&D efforts and of the role government can play in regulating technical change. Just as some national commissions have been set up in certain countries to examine the relationship between information technology and privacy, others have been created to discuss the ethical issues of biotechnological research. For example, in France, the mandate of the National Committee on Medical Bio-ethics is "to discuss the major moral problems raised by biological, medical and health research, whether it concerns the individual, specific social categories or society as a whole."

Many governments have taken on the new task of carrying out the research and analysis that is needed for technology assessment in the full sense, and in fact more energetically than has the private sector on its own with only market evaluation and competition as the spur. The aim is not only to foresee the consequences of technical changes without stifling innovation, but also to provide the basic understanding, procedures, and institutional mechanisms for regulating the conditions of competition between firms or between countries, taking into account the long-term effects of such changes.

In a period of deregulation, when the aim is to stimulate innovation, cut business costs, and lower taxes, it is tempting to equate the notion of less government interference with the legitimizing of technological laissez-faire. It is true that new or tightened environmental protection, safety, and health regulations have altered the pace and direction of innovation in, for example, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries; but whatever the drawbacks and shortcomings of the regulatory framework, technological laissez-faire would involve still greater disadvantages. Moreover, imposed standards prompt more research that leads to further innovations. Cultural necessity is no less the mother of invention than economic necessity: new regulations can sometimes stimulate rather than curb innovation.

The idea that society should exercise some control over the consequences of technical change stems from the very successes of the scientific and industrial enterprise, and the costs that these have sometimes entailed. The issue of government's responsibility as regards regulation of technical change is a thorny one; the criticisms levelled at government intervention tend either not to recognize or to minimize the responsibility. However, if the debate is about policy issues rather than technical matters, governments can help answer the key question of whether the cost-benefit ratio is or is not in the collective interest, and this is, for the developing countries as much as for the industrialized ones, what is at stake in the process of technology assessment.


Conclusion: Perspectives for the future

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Conclusion: Perspectives for the future

Francisco R. Sagasti

As we approach the twenty-first century the uncertain quest of mobilizing science and technology for development appears more elusive. The fragmentary character of our knowledge of the interactions between science, technology, and development and the fundamental changes these concepts are now experiencing make it difficult to derive authoritative and unambiguous conclusions from advances in the field. This task is made even more difficult by the constellation of political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, scientific, and technological changes now occurring, for they are continuously altering the ways in which the processes of knowledge generation and utilization interact with other spheres of human activity.

Nevertheless, even in this turbulent sea of change it is possible to focus on a few key findings and identify promising directions to be explored. Although we must be fully aware of the imperfect nature of our understanding of the interactions between science, technology, and development, the contributions to this volume show that it is possible to offer some conclusions and guidelines for strategy, policy, and decision-making.

First, advances in science and technology have created unprecedented opportunities for improvements in standards of living. During the past four centuries, the systematic process of subjecting abstract conceptions and propositions about the world to the test of empirical observations - which is the hallmark of modern science has superseded other forms of knowledge generation. As a result, science-based technologies are steadily replacing or improving those that developed through trial and error, and modern science and technology have become an indispensable ingredient of whichever conception of development we may adhere to.

Second, we have become acutely aware that progress in material wellbeing for a growing fraction of the world's population coexists with stagnation and even deterioration in standards of living for the majority of poor people. Deprivation of food, health, education, and gainful employment besets a sizeable part of humanity, giving rise to new stresses on the environment that, in turn, undermine the basis for future development. The clash between rising aspirations and the reality of widespread poverty, largely triggered by growing awareness of the lifestyles of the affluent, has become a source of social tension, intolerance, and violence. Indeed, the conventional notion of "development," associated with relentless modernization, is being increasingly questioned on social and environmental grounds.

The combination of unprecedented opportunities brought about by advances in science and technology and enormous challenges in the developing regions highlights one of the fundamental paradoxes of our time: we have never had so much power to influence the course of civilization, to shape the way in which our species will evolve, and to create an ever-expanding range of opportunities for human betterment - but we remain unwilling or unable to use this new-found power to achieve our full potential as human beings. We are in the midst of a knowledge explosion that is dividing the world into fast-moving, rich societies that use knowledge effectively and slow-moving, poor societies that do not. The capacity to generate and utilize knowledge has become the key factor explaining differences in human progress at the end of the twentieth century.

As a consequence, regardless of the level of productive, scientific, or technological capabilities a country may have, it is now imperative to integrate science and technology considerations into the design of development strategies. The key for the vast majority of developing countries is not to produce knowledge, but to acquire, adapt, and use it effectively. This requires strategies, policies, and actions to obtain access to the growing international knowledge base, to develop complementary local science and technology capabilities, and to disseminate and use knowledge.

Different developing countries can achieve this in multiple and varied ways, but all of them can devise measures for mobilizing scientific and technological knowledge more effectively. The appropriate mix of strategy, policy coordination, and investment depends on a country's history and culture, resource endowments, quality of government, entrepreneurship, and external situation. For example, in low-income agrarian economies or primary commodity exporters, emphasis should be placed on increasing agricultural productivity and on producing primary commodities efficiently, while at the same time building the human capital and institutional base for a transition towards more knowledge-intensive industrial and service activities. Middle-income countries should focus on strengthening their limited scientific and technological capabilities to improve their access to foreign technology, and on adapting, diffusing, absorbing, and utilizing it more efficiently. The advanced developing countries should aim at closer integration with the global knowledge base, assimilating advanced technologies, and developing their own technologies in selected areas, tasks in which high-level human capital is crucial.

However, to appreciate fully the challenges and options available to different groups of developing countries it is necessary to develop new conceptual frameworks and habits of thought, as well as to reinterpret past experience in a rapidly changing context. Some elements of an agenda for improving our knowledge of the ways in which to effectively mobilize science and technology for development can be discerned from the discussions of the preceding chapters.

A first set of issues in the agenda is related to information and data gathering on science and technology activities and the way they interact with social and economic development. There is a need to construct indicators to reflect accurately the level of capabilities for generating and utilizing knowledge in developing countries, and also to gather information on the impact of policies and government interventions on the development of such capabilities. Comparative science and technology policy assessment efforts, pioneered in the OECD countries through the "Country Review" exercises that began in the 1960s, could be adapted to the situations that different groups of developing countries face in the 1990s. In addition to gathering much needed information, such exercises would help in spreading "best practice" in policy design and implementation.

The broad range of transformations in the institutional settings for conducting scientific and technological activities provides a second set of issues for research and study. The new patterns of interaction between the state, the market, and civil society - which find their concrete expression in the ways in which government agencies, private industry, non-governmental organizations, educational institutions, research centres, labour unions, professional associations, and similar entities relate to each other - are creating a richly interconnected environment for strategy design and policy implementation. It has now become necessary to map and understand better a host of new institutional arrangements for technology transfer and diffusion, research and development, and higher education, among many other fields, in order to evaluate their impact and consider their applicability. For example, in Latin America new partnerships between foreign firms, research centres, and community organizations have been forged for the evaluation of biodiversity in tropical forests (Costa Rica); cooperative arrangements between universities, consulting firms, and subsidiaries of transnational corporations have been established to develop and test software for business applications (Argentina); and government agencies have teamed up with transnational corporations in a joint venture to develop new products and provide industrial extension services (Chile).

The third set of issues arises from the need to fill knowledge gaps in important areas where opportunities may be lost unless timely action is taken. Some examples are international negotiations on intellectual and industrial property rights, in which the rules for access to the pool of international knowledge are being set; the design of mechanisms for international cooperation in science and technology, which acquires urgency because of the changes that international institutions are undergoing and the rising cost of building scientific and technological capabilities; and the exploitation of the window of opportunity offered to developing countries by the techno-economic paradigm that is emerging as a result of the spread of advances in information technology.

A fourth set of issues emerges out of the need to clarify the overall strategic options available to the different groups of developing countries, particularly with regard to their insertion into the global economy, the need to improve social conditions, the challenge of environmental sustainability, and the role that science and technology capabilities play in pursuing these strategic directions.

During the transition to the twenty-first century, no developing country can expect to remain isolated from global economic, social, and political forces. However, the persistent global inequalities in incomes and standards of living, the fall in the price of primary commodities and the deterioration of terms of trade, the burden of foreign debt, and the intensification of migratory currents indicate the non-viability of the current position of many developing countries in the world economy. As the globalization of trade and finance has taken hold, during the 1980s and 1990s most developing nations have been undergoing a process of relative relaxation of their traditional ties to the international economy - from which they cannot extricate themselves. This period of a weakening of their close economic interrelationships with the rest of the world is likely to be followed by a phase in which new links and patterns of strong interaction with the world economy will be formed.

There are degrees of freedom to influence the repositioning of the developing regions in the future international economy. But in a highly interconnected world, in which competitiveness will depend largely on the capacity to generate and utilize knowledge, scientific and technological capabilities will strongly influence the pattern of reinsertion that finally prevails when the period of relative flexibility and relaxation of linkages is over.

Growing social demands present a difficult challenge for developing countries. The expansion of modern productive activities is not likely to generate sufficient employment opportunities for an expanding labour force at least for a considerable period, which in many developing countries may exceed a generation. It will therefore be necessary to explore strategic options that could improve social conditions through other, more direct, means.

One such option would provide low-cost, labour-intensive, basic social services using advances in information technology. The productivity of such services (basic education, preventive medicine, child care, nutritional extension, reforestation, maintenance of infrastructure, sanitation, waste disposal, personal services) does not depend, to a large extent, on the wage levels or on major investments in fixed assets. However, the organization of labour-intensive services creates problems of training, coordination, management, and administration. Traditional management and training techniques, largely developed before the widespread availability of microcomputers and the expansion of telecommunications, required a large bureaucracy and specialized administrative personnel.

These difficulties can be overcome through the use of advances in information technology (microcomputers, facsimile transmission, electronic and voice mail, computer databases, desktop publishing, video and sound recorders, interactive television, multimedia workstations, etc.), whose cost diminished rapidly during the 1980s. Hardware and software advances have revolutionized the practice of management and are transforming the nature and delivery of service activities. Added to the promotion of labour-intensive small-scale industries and to the expansion of construction activities, the provision of labor-intensive, high-technology, low-cost basic social services could absorb a sizeable portion of the growing labour force that cannot be employed in modern industry. This would set the stage for major improvements in social conditions, both through higher employment and through the direct benefits that the provision of such services bring to developing country populations.

Gaining access to environmentally friendly technologies developed elsewhere and developing solutions for environmental problems specific to developing countries are two of the main strategic options to meet the challenge of environmentally sustainable development. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in July 1992, also known as the "Earth Summit," highlighted the commitment of political leaders to the preservation of the environment for future generations. Technology transfer and scientific research figured prominently in the UNCED negotiations, for it has become clear that the capacity to generate and utilize scientific and technological knowledge, often blended with traditional knowledge, holds the key to environmentally sustainable patterns of development.

Many environmental problems are specific to developing countries and require locally generated solutions (preservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of renewable resources, preventing soil erosion, improvements in water supply), while others can be addressed through the importation of technologies that reduce waste, cut energy consumption, and minimize pollution. As environmental sustainability has become a global concern, there is considerable scope for the design of strategic options that make use of the willingness of industrialized nations to provide development assistance for environmental preservation. Moreover, the preparation of "Environmental Action Plans" is now a condition for granting assistance from bilateral and multilateral sources such as the World Bank, the regional development banks, and the aid agencies of Japan, the United States, and Germany, among others.

These three items in the agenda of strategic options for developing countries - international insertion, social improvements, and environmental sustainability - pose a series of science and technology policy demands that must be met in light of the specific situations of developing countries. These range from maintaining an appropriate policy environment (including macroeconomic stability, competitive pressures, innovation incentives) to establishing an adequate base of human resources (research scientists, managers, engineering and technical personnel, providers of extension services, skilled workers, knowledgeable observers of nature) and to designing policy interventions that focus on the effective acquisition and use of knowledge.

A fifth set of issues is related to governance and social guidance. Investments to create capacity in knowledge generation and utilization take a relatively long time to mature and require sustained support. Facing acute economic and social problems, most developing countries find themselves hard pressed to allocate resources to the uncertain task of building science and technology capabilities and forced to address urgent problems of immediate political concern. Creating and maintaining a social consensus that values science and technology and gives priority to the capacity to generate and utilize knowledge is one of the most urgent tasks for developing country leadership in the transition to the twenty-first century.

Scientific research and technological innovation flourish in open societies where there is a willingness to question orthodoxy and explore new ideas. These conditions are closely related to democratic institutions, where freedom of expression encourages the contrast of different viewpoints and opinions and fosters flexibility and adaptation. The extent to which democracy, development, and the capacity to generate and utilize knowledge are intertwined - and may have become inseparable - is one of the most important issues to elucidate in addressing the governance dimension of development strategies.

A final cluster of issues in the agenda for the future refers to the complex task of reinterpreting the meaning of and possible paths to development, linking them explicitly to the capacity to generate and utilize knowledge. Questions such as popular participation, institutional development, and social and political empowerment have begun to figure prominently as promising new avenues for development thinking. Each of these issues has important implications for the generation? dissemination, and utilization of knowledge, particularly for the rate and direction of technical change, the control of access to knowledge, and the interactions between modern and traditional knowledge.

As evidenced by the contributions to this volume, the repertoire of concepts and ideas in this field has increased significantly, although we are still a long way from having a comprehensive account of the ways in which knowledge, economic growth, and social improvements interact with each other and with the value and ethical dimensions of human progress. Such a reinterpretation should take into account the contemporary critique of modernity and the possible contribution of alternative traditions of knowledge production particularly as social and environmental concerns move to centre stage in the developing world.

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