The Challenges of Science and Technology Policy
POLITICAL ISSUES IN IRELAND TODAY, Third Edition, Neil Collins and Terry Cradden, eds., p. 149, Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York, 2004
22 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2008
Date Written: November 24, 2004
We live in the age of the technological citizen. This is a period in which science and technology have not only come to play a predominant part in shaping our everyday lives, even up to the point of challenging us as citizens in ways previously unimaginable, but are also giving rise to serious problems of regulation and control or what is today called governance.
This historical turn has been in gestation since the 17th-century institutionalization of science and the revolutions in chemistry, biology and physics in the following centuries, but it has begun to unfold with the scope, complexity and dynamism we associate with it today only since science and technology became the leading force of production, particularly after World War II. The scope of this most recent phase in the development of science and technology, which centers on radical developments in micro-biology, micro-electronics and mico-physics, is not just one of scale, but also one of depth. We see evidence of scale in the ability to explore other planets, to unleash weapons of mass destruction up to the level of planetary annihilation, and to deliver electronic messages around the globe in seconds. Evidence of depth is to be found in the ability to decode the human genome, to clone complex mammals and to genetically modify a range of organisms as well as in the emergence of nanotechnology. The complexity of contemporary technology is not in question. On the one hand, it is acknowledged that large technological installations such as for instance a nuclear power plant can no longer be scientifically tested beforehand but that testing has to await the assembly of the multitude of components. On the other, systems have become so intricate and their synergetic effects so unpredictable that accidents, as Charles Perrow (1999) argues, have become a normal feature of the contemporary world. The rapidity with which complex technology is metamorphosing is illustrated by simple examples like the fact that the computer used a few decades ago in the Lunar Module of the US Apollo programme had roughly the same capacity as the SIM card in contemporary cellular or mobile telephones.
Advances such as these change not just our physical reality, but they also impact on our socio-political reality. The invention of the printing press did not just make printing easier and more efficient, but also made books and pamphlets cheaper and more widely available. It socially reconstructed the meaning of the written word. The printing press also made possible rapid advances in science by allowing for the sharing of information and concepts and the breaking down of previously less permeable barriers to the emergence of a scientific community. It helped to democratize information, knowledge and culture, and it was a key catalyst in the reshaping of the political discourse of Europe and ultimately its political order. At the same time, however, it also gave rise to questions of regulation and control. Today, many compare the advent of the Internet with the invention of the printing press - a claim the veracity of which will ultimately be judged by history. The Internet itself is the result of many complex innovations and is only one among many advances. It impacts on time-space relations in terms of the sharing of information and communication at a level impossible prior to its widespread availability, and in its wake follow a series of problems which confront policy-makers with serious questions. Irrespective of whether it is a matter of child pornography and the exclusion of billions from the new communications media, or of nuclear safety, arms development, the modification of the genetic inheritance and cloning, in all such cases unavoidable problems emerge for science and technology policy.
These introductory remarks indicate some of the challenges facing contemporary society and its policy-makers. Issues such as these are of course not confined to Ireland, but there are certain aspects of the framing and governance of science and technology that are particular to Ireland. In this chapter, I will try to keep a balance between both the particular (Ireland) and the more general level. The specific issues we will examine are perceptions of science and technology in Irish society, especially in relation to the idea of expertise, how we deal with public issues around science and technology, and how we might better approach the broader issues of the governance of science and technology. It must be appreciated that aspects of this discussion must begin at a more abstract level before being applied to Ireland. In the final section I will also take an overview on Irish policy and the performance of science and technology both as an innovator and generator of employment.
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