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Who really benefits from science and innovation? -The Asian Age


In recent time, some elites of science have systematically ignored the concerns of people such as those who voted for the President of United States (US) Donald Trump or for Brexit. Trump's campaign group suggested that the benefits of technological progress disproportionately suffered the consequences of expanding global trade in several constituencies in US.  Donald Trump in an interview said "I have always been concerned about the social breakdown of our culture caused by technology".

However, this comment should not undermine the achievement from science and technological innovation. If we accept the authority of a particular scientific discipline, we should not reject its conclusion. German Philosopher Schopenhauer once said that science is not a taxi cab that we can get in and out whenever we like.

It is rather an express train that, once we board it, we must take wherever it may go. When Trump comments about climate change as "hoax", he should know about science what Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, "The exactness is a fake."

The US and European elite pretend that unrestricted technology will not only grow the economy but also close the gap between rich and poor. Experts of Silicon Valley once told Obama that, "The best way for the tech industry to tackle inequality is for it to do what it's supposed to do: innovate in ways that create actual gains in growth and productivity".

History observed that technology tends to widen the gap between rich and poor, simply because rich people are better able to take advantage of productivity gains than poor people.  So, question in my mind is- Who really benefits from science and innovation? If this is only for elite group, then, is the equal opportunity policy enough for gaining access to the benefit of technology?

Lack of getting benefit of something can somehow be mitigated by its access, where a notion of justice can play a part. In Plato's Republic, Socrates says that "justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means deficiency in both respects."

Aristotle takes a different view of justice. Aristotle argues that it is not an individual virtue in itself, but arises only through extension to other. In Book V of his Nicomachean Ethics he says 'Justice, then, is complete virtue, but not absolutely, but in relation to our neighbour.' Thomas Hobbes on the other hand viewed man as a selfish individual with a "war like nature".

This means that a man uses force to get what he desires and only superior force will deter him. In his book Leviathan, Hobbes wrote, "Although the origin of justice is the making of covenants, there can't be any actual injustice until the reason for such fear be taken away, which can't be done while men are in the natural condition of war. So the levels 'just' and 'unjust' can have application only when there is some coercive power to compel all men equally to perform their covenants…." Hobbes view of justice related to the protection of property.

This property could be a new technology. However John Locke's view of justice extended beyond individual property rights. In Two Treatises of Government Locke argued "consider what civil society is for? It is setup to avoid and remedy the drawbacks of the state of nature that inevitably follow from every man's being judge in his own case." Locke maintains that it protects against self-interest and protects the interests of the less powerful in society. Contemporary German philosopher Hegel argues that the key to administering true justice is to make it public.

Hegel said, "An integral part of justice is the confidence which citizens have in it." In modern period, the American philosopher John Rawls argued justice in terms of utilitarianism, the argument that what is right is what gives the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. Rawls in fact developed a new theory which he calls 'justice as fairness'. Rawls said, "In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage." Rawls further states that, "no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society."

Aristotle and Hegel are much closer in terms of "access" notion of justice, while Socratic justice is much more competency based. Rawls argued about fairness through mutual cooperation. Inclusiveness is key to Rawls's concept of justice. But if we give access to technology to all member of the society in the name of equal opportunity or in the name of Hegelian justice or Rawls inclusiveness, then is it enough?

If we reward people the same way regardless of their efforts and achievements, then the more talented and the harder working group lose the incentive to perform.  According to Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang this is known as the equality of outcome. So, clearly this is not enough. So the equality we seek is the equality of opportunity and for a fairer society this is the starting point. However, if we give access to a particular technology to everybody irrespective of their personal circumstances such as income or knowledge and skill, then they would not be able to compete under same circumstances.

This means that unless there is some equality of outcome allowing them to achieve requisite knowledge and skill, equal opportunities are not truly meaningful. In scientific and technological innovation, equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.So, in order to implement the equal opportunity policy successfully, we need equality of outcome, but excessive equalization of outcome is harmful. A balance is required between the two equality domains.

Above all, scientific community could devote their attention more understanding the consequences of technological innovation on society and develop an alternative path to ensure that its benefits are shared more equitably and any negative consequences can be more effectively anticipated. Trump presidency comes with choice. Many scientists and general public were dismayed about this. However, for the sake of science, technology and society as a whole, scientist should think again and think more holistic way so that they can play their part in policy and politics.


The writer is an academic,
environmentalist, columnist and author.  He lives in UK.

-----Dr Kanan Purkayastha