The risks of progress: science, technology and social debate

2011/05/01 Rodríguez, Hannot - Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (Arizona State University), eta Sánchez-Mazas Katedra Iturria: Elhuyar aldizkaria

The risks of progress: science, technology and social debate
01/05/2011 | Rodríguez, Hannot | Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (Arizona State University), and the Sánchez-Mazas Chair (UPV/EHU)
(Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Bart_J)

Science and technology are very important for the well-being and economic competitiveness of industrially developed societies. The capacity of innovation, that is, to generate knowledge and marketable technologies, is key to the socio-economic progress of societies.

However, advances in science and technology generate environmental and health risks. The advances that drive the economy and make life easier, in the context of industrialism, impose on society new challenges: hazardous waste, socio-technical accidents, climate change, etc. Thus, science and technology, in addition to being activities to promote, are activities to limit.

The industrialized countries face the risks of progress through risk analysis. Risk analysis is carried out, first of all, through risk assessment, that is, by an attempt to acquire scientific knowledge about the risks of science and technology. Subsequently, taking into account the results of the risk assessment, the risks are managed, that is, measures of political-legal control are applied to the advances of the science technology.

However, risk analysis does not have the sole objective of offering a safe scientific and technological development. Its goal is also to legitimize techno-industrial progress. In short, risk analyses were established in the previous century, at the end of the 1960s, in the context of a fundamental social critique of industrial society fed by the ideology of counterculture. Therefore, instead of deeply debating and transforming the political-economic bases of society, the Western governments established the risk analysis, convinced that the risks of techno-industrial development can be controlled in the service of imperative economic growth.

However, the legitimating power of risk analysis is limited in our societies. Sometimes, some sectors of society, arguing the dangerous character of innovations in science technology, show an opinion and an attitude contrary to innovations, although the institutional analysis of risk concludes that the risks associated with these innovations are acceptable. This disagreement can put into question the viability of an economy based on scientific-technological innovation. In short, innovation needs the approval of society.

At first, political and economic authorities attributed to ignorance and inadequate information that feeds this ignorance: The society opposed the scientific technology for the ignorance of the "real" risks and for receiving information on the risks of the innovations of the media that offer mainly a sensationalist vision of the risks, that is, catastrophic. According to this diagnosis, in the decade of the 80's, motivating above all the pessimistic social attitudes that existed then before nuclear energy, the role of communication of risk was incorporated into the risk analysis, in the conviction that an "objective" information of risk directed to society would improve his attitude towards innovation.

The differences with scientific innovations cannot, however, be attributed simply to the ignorance or irrational fear of society, so that the communication of risk is not able to give an effective response to the social debates that arise in itself around the innovations. In fact, the activities of science technology and its institutional context are also part of the problem.

For example, risk analyses are not always as accurate as expected and there are accidents that escape control measures, such as nuclear accidents, which seem almost impossible (such as Chernobil and Fukushima). Other times problems arise that were not even imagined by experts, such as cancer associated with the use of asbestos. The experience of superiority, therefore, weakens social confidence in the analysis of risk and increases the feeling that the authorities deprive the economic interests associated with innovations and undermine risks. For example, a broad sector of the society of the European Union has rejected the biotechnology applied to agri-food products, largely because it is considered that both the political leaders and the industry have not taken into account the ecological and moral risks of biotechnology.

Another source of debate is the social distribution of risk. It is customary that neighbors who live near locations of technologies such as mobile phone antennas or incinerators of urban waste oppose these technologies, since this proximity makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of technology. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, the acronym NIMBY is used to describe the following situation: Not In My Back Yard, or "not in the backyard of my house."

However, contemporary critical positions regarding innovations in science and technology are not merely local or "selfish" disagreements. Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have more and more social and political influence in our societies, for example, promote a more global critique of industrial society, assuming the risks of science and technology. This critique seeks the technical mastery of nature and the ideology of economic growth without borders. In this sense, the contemporary security debate also reflects a deep cultural concern for scientific-technical civilization.

The author thanks the Department of Education, Universities and Research of the Basque Government for the grant of a postdoctoral grant that allowed him to work at the US Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (Arizona State University) research center. in this analysis article during the biennium 2009-2010 (#BFI08.183).

Rodríguez, Hannot
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