|The Uncertain Quest: Science, Technology, and Development (UNU, 1994, 531 pages)|
|Part 3: The policy dimension|
|14 Technology assessment|
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.