The problem

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BY the end of the 1980s, the post-World War II consensus on science and the state began to come asunder, not just in the developed world but most parts of the developing world drawn into the frame of science and development during the decades of decolonization. This metamorphosis was itself a product of the co-evolution of state and science/technoscience, as well as the mutual transformations engendered by this parallel evolution. These transformations have been studied, analyzed and investigated by economists, sociologists of science, and policy researchers who have identified for us the transformations in the world of knowledge production, the changes in the ethos of science proper, marking the emergence of so-called post-academic science.1 

Speaking of the transformation in just one of the sciences as an example, namely chemistry, from the end of the 19th century its public image drew sustenance in the policy realm from its millenarian promise of dispelling illness and suffering. And yet today, chemistry for many has become the science of pollutants, as the new biosciences and those of new materials rush into the vacuum left over by chemistry. And with these new promises naturally come new risks.

These internal changes within science are rendered more complex by the organizational transformation at the different sites of knowledge production themselves. As the so called traditional institutions of higher learning, like the university of teaching and research, forge new collaborative ties and arrangements with a variety of stakeholders and clients under the pressure of a state that appears to be withdrawing as the major and sometimes only supporter of scientific research, it has become increasingly important to revisit the relationship between state and science.

This is not to say that these are two different domains that have been significantly transformed by the advancing frontier of technoscience. In fact, the state’s relationship with the world of science, and the internal dynamic of scientific and technological evolution, has rendered the field of investigation that one might tentatively call science and state highly problematic and contested. One of the early attempts to engage with it at the policy level was witnessed in the deliberations initiated by UNESCO in its attempt to arrive at some consensus on a ‘New Social Contract for Science’. In India at least one of the outcomes was the Bangalore communiqué.2 

It was with this intention in mind that a group of scholars congregated at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla in 2012 for a two day workshop to engage with the different dimensions of this metamorphoses, and to reflexively turn upon and examine not just the relationship between science, state and society but the concepts and theories employed by researchers studying the relationship. However, this exploration was not restricted to approaches to the problematic within the disciplinary format of STS, howsoever defined in myriad academic cultures, but to centre the exploration of this transition through multiple disciplinary and sub-disciplinary lenses that include history, economics, technology education and the perspectives of social movements and ‘intermediaries’.

The contributors to this issue of Seminar take up concepts and theories that frame contemporary discussion on the science, state and society relationship in South Asia and discuss how the contexts of the elaboration of these concepts and frames have changed – approaching very specific manifestations in their respective domains of investigation. Beyond situating the changing conceptual and theoretical frameworks, they chronicle the transformations of the relationship between science and society over the past couple of decades and the possible consequences of these changes.

Surely, the contributions do not comprehensively cover the entire canvas of ‘technoscience’, and at least for this round a major concern of several of the papers happens to be the field of agricultural science and agricultural biotechnology. But more importantly, each from its disciplinary platform asks what the transformations in the state and institutional and organizational practice of the technosciences mean for democracy and citizenship, what these changes signify for the making of policy for the sciences and development and, equally significantly, how these transformations are produced within the institutions of higher education which is the lifeline that sustains the world of technosciences as a system for the production of knowledge.

In this transition marking the changing contract between science and state, it would be important to note that the landscape is marked by several more sites of interrogation and research, civil action and resistance than were there thirty years ago. Five decades ago there was a greater degree of convergence on questions and approaches. In contrast, the dissatisfaction and differentiation with the world of sciences is reflected more tangibly in the metadiscourse as well. At a foundational level the social imaginary of science has itself changed, as has the language of political legitimacy. The value neutrality of science for one was shared during the Cold War decades and drew sustenance from what Sal Restivo called the John Wayne epistemology of science as objective, exact and disembodied knowledge, with the university as the primary site for the production of knowledge. For a variety of reasons this image of science has come undone, but certainly not for meta-theoretic reasons alone. These changes can be identified at the epistemological, institutional, organizational and ideological levels; not to mention the entanglements and nested association between these levels.

As science engages with more complex and non-linear phenomena, mediated by the use of increasingly sophisticated instruments, our access to so called reality, never direct in the first instance, is mediated by equally sophisticated mathematical and theoretical frames. The study of controversies and controversial science has revealed the diversity of the sciences as opposed to its unity. Furthermore, the greater emphasis on its instrumental side, captured in the concept of technoscience, sometimes at the expense of its intrinsic goals, has further exacerbated this diversity and differentiation. As Gallison, Jasanoff and others have argued, while there is a diversity in the sciences, these sciences are in turn implicated in equally diverse relations with the state, and this in turn is reflected in the varied cultures of policy making across and within nations.3 Likewise there are different cultures of science policy making spread across the sciences and technosciences. The concept of technoscience itself is a product of a particular moment in the evolution of science and technology, a conjuncture both in the development of the sciences where one ideal of knowledge is overwhelmed if not suppressed by another. A claim one could reasonably make is that the different sciences and technosciences are embedded in equally diverse social relations and cultures of policy and decision making. Perhaps at some point in the future, this diversity could be reflected through contributions that interrogate medicine, health, environment, communication technologies.

And while historians of science may still argue as to when we entered the era of global science, different national science systems are drawn into the networks of globalized science and the transition to a post-academic science. This alters the social relations of science, even though we still do not have a full-fledged characterization of this science. But more importantly, the plural contexts within which the sciences are embedded have given rise to a proliferation of conceptual categories and languages that overlap even while referring to distinct objects – mandated science, post-academic science, mode-2 science, triple helix, academic capitalism, post-normal science, social robust science, science in the agora, and so on.4 Clearly this transformation has been catalyzed by the genetics-communication revolution, which in turn transforms the state as well – from a nation state into a network-state driven by the new logics of networks and identities. Despite the proliferation of conceptual categories, they all gesture towards a greater socialization of science which brings with it questions of accountability, social responsibility and innovation, all entangled in a variety of ways, though the dominant discussion around innovation very frequently refers to market innovation.

The blueprint of the traditional social contract was to be encountered in Bush’s Science: The Endless Frontier. Science policy in the 1960s was framed by an understanding that the application and support of science would boost GNP. A decade later the doctrine was readjusted to accommodate the market and societal pull factors and Elzinga suggested that science was mobilized for policy rather than policy for science. The 1980s witnessed policies focusing on basic research in order to stimulate the new and emerging technologies.5 And in the 1990s, there was a reorientation designed to rethink the new social contract for science. By the 1990s, at the meta-theoretical level, the new conceptualization of the science-society relationship allowed for a more meaningful interplay of stakeholder interests, broadly defined, social movements and NGOs. The other side of the commodification of science during this era was the swell of resistance towards these trends. So much so, Nowotny et al. would characterize the 1950s as an era of the scientization of society and the last two decades as marking in more ways than one, the socialization of science.6 

This takes the debate on science and democracy to a new level. If philosophers like John Dewey and others thought that science as an institution had much to offer to the practice of democracy, today science policy experts such as John Ziman see in science democratic pluralism in practice, a democratic pluralism that is the very prerequisite for the production and reproduction of the culture of science. Ziman wrote as an insider, a practitioner of science, a science policy researcher, with an ear for the discussion and arguments on the new production of knowledge.7 Speaking of matters closer home, over the last two decades we have been witness to a precipitous decline in the democratic culture of science in the subcontinent. The inability of the scientific community to cope with the democratization and expansion of the social reach of science has reinforced certain authoritarian tendencies within the scientific community, sometimes expressed in the assertion of their rightful and sole claim to scientific expertise. This undermines science’s ability to adjudicate between several either epistemic or social alternatives.

The internal differences within science often manifest in public controversies and erode the public authority of science. These controversies reach the public through several media conduits where media moghuls themselves become agenda brokers, not just of well established political constituencies but of their own interests. The centring of scientific authority in the narrativization of science plays a role analogous to the imaginary of science as value-neutral. Furthermore, in the auditing of scientific innovation or resolution of controversies, the failure to highlight the role of invisible technicians is also a failure to unravel the socially distributed nature of knowledge – thereby legitimating the new intellectual property regimes.

As public controversies related to science proliferate – a sign of the socialization of science – one misses the voices of democracy and dissidence within the world of science. In such a world, where are the expert dissidents – the Indian Sakharovs – who, to use Satish Dhawan’s phrase, serve as the ‘social conscience’ of a community committed to the additional tasks of reproducing itself and its authority? This absence may itself impede the conversations as it did in the past between different kinds of expertise and cultural resources available within society. This issue of Seminar aims to stimulate, not just a conversation on how the social and organizational context of science is changing but a reflection on how our concepts, categories and theories are shaped by and mirror these changes.

DHRUV RAINA

 

Footnotes:

1. John Ziman, Real Science: What it is, and What it Means. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

2. ‘Bangalore Communiqué on Science and Society’, International Symposium on Science and Society: A new Social Contract. Bangalore, 23-29 January 1999; www.unesco.org/science/wcs/meetings/apa_bangalore_99.html

3. Peter Galison and David J. Stump, The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford University Press, 1996; Sheila Jasanoff, Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton University Press, 2005.

4. Aant Elzinga, ‘The New Production of Particularism in Models Relating to Research Policy: A Critique of Mode-2 and Triple Helix’, 2002. ww.csi.ensmp.fr/WebCSI/4S/...paper/download_paper.php?.

5. Aant Elzinga, ‘Features of the Current Science Policy Regime: Viewed in Historical Perspective’, Science and Public Policy 39, 2012, pp. 416-428.

6. Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott and Michael Gibbons, Re-thinking Science, Knowledge and the Public in the Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001.

 7 John Ziman, Science in Civil Society. Imprint Academic, 2007.

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