If you’re an incurable science enthusiast (like I am), when you hear graphene you probably see the new wonderful material, when you hear genetically modified crops you see the solution to world’s famine and when you hear cheap laptops, you see the solution to illiteracy. But with all those scientific and technological inventions, how is it that there are still so many social problems around the world? Why is the climate getting worse and not better? The answer is that we, as the general community of scientists and engineers have been arrogant enough to think that a technical solution to a social problem is enough. According to this technocratic view, there is a simple linear relationship between science, technology and society, namely “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”. But there are so many factors that have to be considered when doing research, including social interactions, cultural differences, politics and finance. Then there is also the question of ethics and responsibility.
One of the most interesting cases of a theoretical technological solution to a problem facing humanity is geoengineering. The idea behind it is that because we can’t stop the global warming using soft methods such as CO2 emission reduction, we should engineer the earth’s climate so that it cools down. Although most of the geoengineering ideas are at the outskirts of scientific research for now, there is a very interesting debate of whether they would be feasible or more importantly if their use would be ethical. To give you a flavour of what sort of technologies I’m talking about, there are two ways in which we could, according to some scientists, reduce the effect climate change. There are the carbon removal techniques which include ocean iron fertilization, CO2 capture and forestation. On the other side are the solar radiation management techniques which would reduce the amount of heat that reaches Earth: these include giant mirrors in space, cloud seeding and reflective aerosols that could be sprayed around the Earth using aeroplanes. While some of those techniques seem reasonable (forestation), other seem like a good sci-fi (giant mirrors), but other raise the question of safety and ethics (ocean iron fertilisation and reflective aerosols). When it comes to the last two techniques, we must think about whether the potential risks wouldn’t actually outgrow the benefits. The problem with those solutions is that there is no way to see how they will really work until they are fully implemented. We can test for the safety of aerosols sprayed in the air, but even the most advanced computer models will not predict all the outcomes. And then comes the question of management: who would pay for this? Since this technology would supposedly help the whole planet, would all the countries have to contribute to it?
What would happen if suddenly people decided to stop spraying those aerosols – would the temperature suddenly rise? We can see that politicians already cannot agree on simple things like CO2 reduction or recycling. Should we really believe that even if the scientists guaranteed effectiveness and safety of any of those technological fixes, people all over the world would approve of them?
These are some of the questions that we try to answer as part of the Science and Technology Studies. STS is a relatively new (post WW2) discipline, but there is a growing interest in studying the questions of science and technology policy. Only last month we saw launch of the Responsible Research and Innovation Toolkit – a pan-European project that aims to bring together scientists, policy makers and citizens to help solve some of the big challenges that lie ahead of us.
About the author:
Marta is a MSci student in Inorganic Chemistry with History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science at University College London. She is especially interested in science and technology policy and how it can be applied to ensure responsible innovation. Marta spends her free time working for the Federation of Polish Student Societies in the UK, promoting science with the UCLU Triple Helix Society, reading about feminism in science and playing the cello.