The Social Control of Science and Technology – Essay

Problems Arising Out of the Lack of Systematic Control over Scientific and Technological Innovations:

As it is made clear, science and technology have been undergoing relatively fast changes. These changes do not always guarantee beneficial results to the society and people. These changes may often give rise to some special problems also. At the same time, we have not been able to develop a system to exercise control over scientific and technological innovations. Our failure in this regard has further added to this problem. Three main problems in this regard are worth citing here.

1. Problem Related to the Nature and Qualities of the Environment:

Environment has been the first casualty as far as scientific and technological innovations are concerned. A relatively unsystematic and uncontrolled scientific and technological advance may have many unforeseen social effects particularly on the quality of the environment.

Examples:

(i) Due to excessive use of chemicals and artificial fertilisers soil impoverishment has taken place in nations such as South Italy, Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Morocco,

(ii) There have been fears that food additives may contribute to human cancers, blood pressure, diabetes, nervous weakness and such other diseases,

(iii) Atmospheric pollution caused by man may lead to climatic changes that could cause a new ice age,

(v) Gases sprayed through aeroplanes may interfere with the planet’s ozone layer and allow dangerous radiation to reach the surface of the earth. Many more examples of this kind could be cited.

2. Distortion of the Priorities of the Research Matters and Efforts:

Society should take up the responsibility of fixing priorities for making scientific researches and technological findings. If such priorities are not fixed then the innovations may not take place in accordance with the defined social goals.

The haphazard way in which the scientific and technological advances take place not only cause unforeseen effects but also distort the priorities of techno-scientific development.

Critics are of the opinion that under the present conditions, the scarce natural resources are to be judiciously handled and conserved; and they must be used for serving important human needs such as – producing more effective life-saving drugs, predicting more effectively and well in advance the probable dangers of earthquakes, cyclones, and such other natural calamities; for producing more effective instruments to increase the efficiency of physically and mentally handicapped children and so on. Scarce resources, for example, need not be wasted just for producing new types of cosmetics

Highly Technological Society Posing A Possible Threat to Democracy?

In a participant democracy ordinary people and their elected representatives take part in the decision making process. In a highly technological society such decision makers may unknowingly cause great dangers to the society by taking unscientific and wrong decisions.

For example, they may take decisions to build nuclear reactors near urban-settlements, to issue licenses to industries that cause environment pollution of the worst type; to issue such licenses to the industries without considering, the “sustaining power” of that particular environment, and so on. Due to their ignorance of scientific and technical matters, such representatives may invite dangers to the society.

Further, there is another danger caused by what is known as technocracy. Galbraith (1967) and others have warned about technocracy, that is, rule by technical experts who play their role behind the scenes. In modern corporations, big companies and government departments, the real decisions are often made by the so called experts.

The decision makers normally rely upon the specialised knowledge and recommendations of these technical experts. Sometimes, societies will have to pay a heavy penalty for the erroneous technical advises given by these experts.

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It is clear from the above analysis that there exists a need for establishing a systematic control over scientific and technological developments. But the establishment of social control over science and technology is not an easy task. According to Ian Robertson, such an attempt itself involves some difficulties or problems which may be briefly examined here.

1. Problem of the Conflict of Values:

The task of establishing social control over science and technology gives rise to the problem of conflict of values. The ultimate object of science is the pursuit of knowledge. Any real scientist for that matter expects an atmosphere of complete intellectual freedom.

Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, points to this conflict in the following words. “There arises at once the question; should we consider the search for truth… as an autonomous objective of our work? Or should our search for truth be sub-ordinated to some other objective, for example, to a “practical one?” This question cannot be decided on a logical basis.

The decision, however, will have considerable influence upon our thinking and our moral judgement, provided that it is born out of deep and unshakable conviction..” He further writes “…. any thinking individual would find it impossible to have a conscious, positive attitude towards life” unless he is allowed to have independent objectives.

Einstein also states that “… intellectual individualism and the thirst for scientific knowledge emerged simultaneously in history and have remained inseparable ever since…” Should a scientist be allowed to have intellectual liberty and freedom to do research, even if his research or findings would bring disastrous effects on the society? This is virtually a question related to value conflict.

Problem of Non-Scientists Dictating Terms to Scientists Regarding Science and Technology:

There is the problem of non-scientists giving orders or directions as to what scientists should do, and should not do, what researches to pursue and what to drop out, and so on. If it is a question of imposing restrictions on research, it again becomes difficult to decide the nature of restriction. It becomes impossible for the scientists with conscience to receive such orders or commands at the hands of unqualified persons.

Dilemma Created By the Shifting of Priorities:

The issue of establishing social control over science and technology gives rise to yet another conflict of values, particularly if society attempts to shift its priorities in applied research from one set of goals to another.

For example, if a manufacturing company which has been encouraging scientists to produce new types of packed food, suddenly changes its priority towards producing cosmetics; it may lead to heavy loss in terms of infrastructure. It may also mean interference in the intellectual freedom of the scientists. In a capitalist system like America, such shifts in priorities are often resisted by the scientists.

The Question of Owning Moral Responsibility for the Research:

Scientific and technological innovations or researches may not always bring about positive results. They may often lead to deadly and disastrous consequences. The problem that arises here is, -who should own the moral responsibility for having taken decisions about research that may have far-reaching consequences? The manufacture of atomic bomb, and later the development of hydrogen bomb, is but examples of many such cases. In these cases, for example, technical and moral issues are not easily separated in practice.

The Problem of the Scientists Not having Any Control over Their Own Research:

The present day scientists in most of the countries are not able “to control the uses to which their work is put”. Many scientists are very much disturbed about this situation. Albert Einstein points out at the helplessness of the scientist in the following words. “What then, is the position of today’s man of science as a member of society?

He obviously is rather proud of the fact that the work of scientists has helped to change radically the economic life of men by almost completely eliminating muscular work. He is distressed by the fact that the results of his scientific work have created a threat to mankind since they have fallen into the hands of morally blind exponents of political power………… the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of small minorities which has not only made the man of science dependent economically, but also threatens his independence from within……… He even degrades himself to such an extent that he helps obediently in the perfection of the means for the general destruction of mankind”

The Necessity of International Science Court:

Who should take decisions regarding new technology and new researches? This question has assumed to be an important one. Moneyed people with greediness, scientifically ignorant people with political power, and common people who conspicuously lack genius – can never take such important decisions.

It is, in this context, establishment of an international controlling agency such as an “international science court, with full legal powers to restrict certain dangerous or risky research seems to be the need of the hour. Many thinkers and scholars have already made proposals of such a ‘science court’.”

It is left to the community of scientists, technologists of international standard, and the formal organisations of scientists to take a final decision about this proposal. Ian Robertson has warned that “The question is a very important one, for scientific and technological advance in the years ahead may change our material and social environment in ways that many people might consider undesirable.

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Science and technology are an inseparable aspect of the modern life and hence progress without science and technology is inconceivable. Research in the scientific and technological field is a sine quo non for economic advancement. Industry and society must provide the necessary environment for research to flourish. Effective utilisation of research is equally important.

Knowledge can be a real “power” only when there are able and efficient people to use it. From the society’s point of view, scientific and technological research is useless in a practical sense unless it is properly tapped or exploited. Such exploitation, however, requires more successful, aggressive, forward looking and efficiently organised mechanism for development.

Science and technology cannot assure progress or service to humanity by themselves. They depend on certain conditions to make available for the society and people, their utilisation. The conditions for the success of science and technology in service of society and people may briefly be examined here.

1. Presence of Scientists and Technologists’:

The first requirement for the success of science and technology is the very presence of scientists and technologists. Technology can be imported, but the scientists cannot be. Import of research results cannot assure progress. A nation which is interested in quick progress must have its own natural resources, raw materials, and finally its own scientific personnel. It must pay proper attention to develop its own scientific community.

2. Institution to Support Research:

Research work is supported, sponsored, organised and directed by a well established institution. The tasks of the institutions are- to identify the areas of research, select problems which need immediate solutions, arrange resources, and fix priorities relevant to country’s economic growth.

Constant attention should be paid to the way in which the expected results can be made technologically and economically more practicable. It is necessary to sell the results of research in a profitable manner. The capacity to succeed depends more on the strategy and efficiency of the management than on the research potential.

3. Presence of the Potential User:

Success of technological and scientific researches depends upon the presence of the potential users and their capacity to appreciate and actually utilise the relevant technology made available by research. There has to be a proper communication line between the sender and the receiver. Research result can be sold only within the limited circle of the people, such as industrialists who can take the actual benefits out of it.

4. Proper Market and Enterprise:

Applied research is most effective when it is coupled with a proper market and enterprise. Creation of market, identification of needs and demands and an appropriate environment are thus important.

5. Strong Government Support:

Science and technology can hardly flourish in the modem situation in the absence of strong government support. As far as India is concerned, the Indian Government is highly supportive of science and technology. India has gone ahead of many of the developed nations especially in the fields of computer software and space research because of the strong government backing. The nation has now a firm commitment to science and a strong will to achieve results through the application of science and technology.

6. Enlightened Public Opinion In Support Of Scientists:

Another major prerequisite for science to succeed is a public opinion sufficiently well informed and enlightened to give every support to scientists. Well-informed public opinion can be got only through education.

In this fast changing world of science, we need to focus our emphasis on the development of attitudes towards creativity, scientific method, critical thinking, devotion to the sense of values and ideals and individual excellence. Superstition, ritualism, and prejudice must give way to rational thinking, questioning attitude, spirit of adventure and scientific temper.

7. Proper Identification of Problems and Issues Relevant to Economic Growth:

Benefits of scientific and technological research will largely depend upon the proper identification and definition of problems that are relevant to economic growth. Researches and technologies are to be oriented towards the national priorities and the felt-needs of the people.

Raw material resources and the genius of the land must be properly utilised. Proper facilities must be created for the designing and engineering establishments of the research. Industry, society and government must provide a necessary atmosphere and economic environment for research to grow.

Thus, the research yields differ from country to country differing at the levels of incomes, levels of technology, in industrial structure, size, technical and skilled manpower, the rate of expenditure on research and development.

8. Proper Co-ordination between Research Industry and Society:

Research and industry are partners to promote and catalyse the progress of the country. The support for science and technology from the side of society should be an act of faith. Industries must turn towards science and scientific research not only for finding solutions that crop up in their process of productive activity, but also to develop their intrinsic strength and efficiency.

“As it stands now, research and industry in India are running parallel like the two banks of a river, so near yet so far. What is most needed is the creation of common industry-research culture. The research and the industrialist must each live in both the worlds in such a manner that the worlds of research and industry become a single world.”

Further, the society should create a proper social and economic environment that is favourable for the growth of science and technology. Science and technology, in turn, must support each other and contribute to the progress of society and industry.

As it is already made clear, science and technology are growing at a very fast rate in the modern world. Changes taking place especially in the technological world force changes in the society.

Science influences technology and in turn, gets influenced by technology. Both are changing and both contribute to changes in other fields as Horton and Hunt have pointed out, “Science and technology have irresistible effects on other institutions.

Business concerns face bankruptcy unless they use the latest technology, governments find that technical change has altered the problems which they face, religion must adapt its teachings to meet new scientific interpretation, and education seeks to prepare students for scientific and technical developments.”

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Science and Technology have become a powerful force now. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to resist their temptation. Once set in motion, they cannot be stopped. Any attempt to prohibit new scientific and technological research would soon put us in the backwaters of history. Because all sciences are interrelated and interdependent, and discoveries in one field open new vistas in others.

As Horton and Hunt have said, “Marx may have been wrong in making the economic institutions dominant over all the others. It may be that science and technology have greater effect upon our social relationships than any other institution.

Science and technological advancements spread very fast. In fact, it is very difficult to maintain secrecy in the realm of science and technology. Anything that scientists and engineers or technicians in industry, corporation or nation can do, the scientists, engineers and technicians of any advanced country can duplicate. Given a little time and a lot of money techniques involved in the new innovations are often stolen illegally. The findings of science and technology can never be secret for long.

Science and technology are considered two important means for socio-economic progress. When we speak of science and technology, we speak in terms of their practical utility and convenience, and neglect their impact on human satisfaction for it cannot be demonstrated.

When we evaluate the effects of science and technology, we normally do not examine them in terms of the totality of human experience. We say this or that invention is valuable because it generates other inventions.

Because, it is a means to some other means not because it achieves an ultimate human end and we undermine the “side effects” which often completely negate all the alleged benefits. The advantages of all technological progress will be totally outweighed the moment nuclear war breaks out.

It is true that once a new technology is accepted, its hidden consequences may be unavoidable. For example, automobiles pollute environment, mass production promotes monotony and alienation, sophisticated technology produces technological unemployment, birth control techniques augment instances of sexual immorality, pesticides cost human health, war weapons make international peace a casualty, and so on. These, and many more examples of this kind, make us believe that we are becoming helpless victims of technology.

Science and technology have developed far faster than have social mechanisms to control them. A century ago, science was struggling to secure recognition and technology was relatively undeveloped. Today, they have brought about socio-political upheavals. They have the potentiality of causing wholesale destruction of human life. These undesirable consequences of science and technology were never anticipated previously.

The Question of Controlling Science and Technology: Now the question before us is – can people control science and technology? The answer to this question is an emphatic “yes”. It is ‘yes’ only if there are other values which are more important and precious. When people make reckless use of technology, science gets blame.

As we see it today, political control of scientific and technological research is increasing. The autonomy of science diminishes as the domination of the Government grows. Popular skepticism is also increasing about science and technology especially after the two World Wars and the recent war between Iraq on the one hand, and America and the European Union, on the other.

Hence, there is an urgent social challenge to find some means of ensuring that science and technology continue to develop in the direction of serving humanity rather than destroying it.

Einstein’s Call to the Scientist to Face the Challenges with Courage:

Albert Einstien who analyses the role of a scientist and his responsibility in an article – [Page: 4] also gives a call to the scientist to face the challenges of the modern situations in a courageous manner. According to him, no one should feel that “there is really no escape for the man of science…”, and he should not “tolerate and suffer all the indignities” perpetrated on him. He cautions that no scientist should allow himself to be “enslaved or used as a blind tool.”

He writes; “If the man of science of our day could find the time and the courage to think honestly and critically over his situation and the tasks before him and if he would act accordingly, the possibilities for a sensible and satisfactory solution of the present dangerous international situation would be considerably improved.

Conclusion:

Science and technology have not only become major institutions of modern times, but also posed big challenges to the present world. The advances in these fields carry along with them latest consequences, which are difficult, if not impossible, to control. Still both can be directed at human welfare rather than human destruction. Horton and Hunt conclude this discussion in the following words:

“Those who really understand science have always been in the minority. Science may even go into temporary eclipse in one region, as in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s or in the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, but barring the worldwide destruction of civilization in a nuclear holocaust – which is not at all impossible – science and technology will continue to promote both innovation and change.”