What Works Where and for Whom?

Notes of the workshop Science Technology and Development, held 12-14 December 2011 at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

A global map of scholarly activity in STS will show spots on all continents but undoubtedly the larger dabs are in the US and Northwest Europe. This geographical concentration reflects overall global differences in academic facilities and research investments that, again in very general terms, conditions the geographical and topical focus of research. The field of STS is not an exception to the rule. Yet, there are good arguments to say that STS could (and should) employ more of its conceptual toolkit and scholarly energy to issues and phenomena in other parts of the world. These arguments have been presented at EASST and 4S conferences over the years through individual papers, sessions and roundtable discussions. In a roundtable session at the last 4S conference in Cleveland, Sheila Jasanoff nicely summarized these arguments by stating that STS takes asymmetries and symmetries seriously. And that also applies to the political and intellectual geographies of STS.

This note presents the activities and some of the outcomes of the workshop ‘Hotspots of Development’, held last December in Amsterdam. The workshop was yet another opportunity to address the asymmetric geographical distribution of STS in a hands-on manner. It actually is the third in what is now a series of such workshops following the 4S/EASST Roundtable about the problem. And as in previous years EASST and other sponsors helped to create facilities to invite young scholars from outside Western countries to bridge, if only partly and temporarily, the institutional gaps that obstruct exchange and collaboration. Once again, the overall workshop format was to connect early-career STS scholars (originating from or focusing in their work on developing countries) with each other, create an opportunity to present their current work and explore further issues in the STS field through sessions with invited speakers. We received over twenty applications of which in the end a group of nineteen early-career scholars attended the workshop. All participants worked on development-related topics and by and large half of the group had their undergraduate training from an institution outside Europe or the US. There was a relatively large share of participants from India. The programme alternated presentations from invited speakers with presentations from participants. In the following sections we will highlight some of the themes and issues that came up during the workshop.

The central theme of the workshop was the identification and analysis of geographical, institutional and conceptual change. We coined the localities where change is most prominent ‘hotspots of development’. Rather than a map-making exercise to find all the possible hotspots, the idea was to see how concepts and approaches in STS are able to identify and understand particular hotspots and what insights an STS approach reveals. In other words, the workshop’s aim was to explore and discuss theoretical questions and empirical cases of the ‘hotspots’ where science, technology and development intersect. In the exchanges, the variety of study areas and topics the participants were engaged in appeared to match very well with the more general and conceptual issues brought forward by the speakers. In this respect the workshop was a creative, stimulating and rich experience.

Shifting the attention to development does not imply an entirely unfamiliar set of topics and issues to deal with. STS studies in Western settings dealing with the (imagined) social underpinning of path-breaking science and experimental technologies have their equivalents in non-Western settings. An example is neuroinformatics (combining nano-, bio-, and information and communication technologies) and how this entwines with India as one of world’s largest democratic nations (Ravi Shukla)1. If and how new technologies such as nanotech an biotech travel from one part to the other and how this creates new symmetries and asymmetries between and within countries was a recurrent issue in other work as well. Despite a long record of dissent, protest and unfulfilled promises, biotech solutions to food crops keep on reappearing as a silver bullet against hunger and poverty. A recent example is Bt Brinjal, a pest-resistant GM variety of aubergine, experimented with in India (Andreas Mitzschke). Nanotechnology seems to move along a similar path of what Nick Cullather called imagineering, exemplified in a study on (dis)similarities of nanotech research in the Netherlands and Chile (Carla Alvial). Some of the presentations provided interesting comments on these developments, for example by questioning the notion of ‘advanced science’ by showing how Indian scientists made a low-cost ‘tinkered’ nano-microscope (Wiebe Bijker). Moreover, these technologies assume innovation is about distribution of top-notch equipment from high-tech labs and centres where analysis of global innovation processes point towards a more bottom-up or bottom-of-the-pyramid model (Luc Soete).

In cases where innovative changes in society are more widespread and have a longer history, the picture does not seem to be very different. A study on the introduction of soy-bean in India in the 1970s shows almost equal high levels of expectation among scientists and politicians and as much dissent and adjustment from the side of the proclaimed beneficiaries, in this case farmers in rural India (Richa Kumar). Typically in agriculture user conditions depend on a range of factors, many of which are beyond immediate control, resulting in diverging meanings in engineering contexts and user contexts of, for example, a notion like efficiency. Studies on irrigation technologies in Morocco (Saskia van der Kooij) or a comparative study on the use of hydrodynamic models in the deltas of the Netherlands and Bangladesh (Arjen Zegwaard) showed many of such tensions. Uncontrolled and unknown factors also spoil engineers’ dreams in urban context as for example in a study on shifting fuel sources (natural gas instead of diesel and petrol) in urban transport in Ahmedabad (Lakum Mukesh). These examples also showed the close connection between science, technology and governing institutions, trying to regulate and control developments. A strong case is the global network of disease control, in particular the development of vaccines, largely determining from their administrative centres what is supposed to work where and how, therewith eroding local competencies to work on diseases (Stuart Blume). Interestingly, attempts to portray global solutions from a single source can also be found outside official institutions, exemplified by the System of Rice Intensification (Dominic Glover). This raises all sorts of question about the way so-called indigenous knowledge can be connected or integrated in formal centres of knowledge and policy (Arie Rip).

Several workshop participants worked on areas where government control is much less established or in a state of recovery after disruption. A clear example is a study on evaluation research in Afghanistan (Tjitske Holtrop). The absence of a strong state perhaps creates all sorts of extra (official and unofficial) layers of protocols and rules. Similar dynamics come forward in studies in Israel (Adi Inbar) or in specific disaster-stricken areas in India (Chandrika Parmar). What comes out is that in places where activities of established governing agents disappear or are disrupted, local power dynamics fill in these gaps by creating rules and regulation on their own terms. An interesting example came from a presentation on farmer suicides in India where rural elites hijack the situation to defend their position towards a global audience (Esha Shah). Similar dynamics come out in a study on foreign aid agents in Kyrgyzstan and their interaction with the country’s patron-client relations (Yulia Poskakukhina). Such environments not only restrict research work but also create opportunities for new creative ways to make use of ‘power gaps’ in local circumstances, shown in a presentation on research in remote areas in former Soviet territory where area maps were discussed with local people to blend different forms of knowledge (Shailaja Fennell).

Various studies focused on climate issues. Where much of the debate seems to concentrate on atmospheric studies and global effects, in reality a variety of new research and technologies are promoted as dealing with climate change. STS has an extensive conceptual toolkit to challenge assumptions and envisioned effects. This equally applies to technologies to exploit wind and solar energy (Suyash Jolly) or anticipated effects of growing a crop like Jatropha for biofuel (Eveline de Hoop). Many of the issues and themes in these studies also appeared in related topics that seem to strengthen the ties between global relevance and universal knowledge. Sustainability and biodiversity are examples of this and came out clearly in studies sustainable consumption (Vivek Mathur) and conflicts over natural resource conservation (Aarthi Sridhar). One study looked at how such dynamics intersect with issues of poverty and community development (Kirsten Ulsrud). Various of these studies are framed as transitions studies, putting emphasis on the fact that research and technology operate under changing conditions. This is central in a study on how governments and research institutes in Asia portray such changes (Frans Sengers) and how they materialise this in new technologies and regulatory mechanisms (Micha Velthuis). These various dynamics were nicely put together in a more systemic account, showing how systems respond differently to different forms of shock and stress (Andy Stirling).

A workshop like this proves the relevance and variety of ways in which STS can contribute studies in which global dynamics, international development and humanitarian principles are central. An interesting effect of the shared background of various participants was an invitation to hold the next workshop in India. Whether this will be realized or not, the workshop has proved that STS has increasingly become a field that stretches beyond Europe or other Western nations throwing up new exciting questions, research opportunities and challenges.

1 Names in brackets refer to workshop participants and speakers.


Leave a Reply