July 26, 2011

Seeds and sociotechnical imaginaries

One of the coolest things about Science & Technology Studies is that it blurs the line between the social sciences and humanities. Scholars from the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, women's studies, and political science (among others) all collaborate to understand the world from this unique lens. The benefit I enjoy from this perspective is that I can take a more creative, literary approach to some of my research. For example, just today I was thinking about this post, and something about these pictures reminded me of none other than the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale! Stick with me, and I'll actually try to make a convincing argument for the connection to climate change.

I've been thinking about how we use the "imagination" of plant DNA, genetics, breeding, biotechnology, as a future technology to help crops adapt to climate change. For example, if you take the DNA from a warmer climate plant and breed it (either through conventional crossing, or biotechnology/recombinant DNA methods) with another plant with desired characteristics, farmers can then grow that plant without having to radically change their methods or machinery. I am developing a fair amount of criticism of this imagination because of two main things:
1) Agricultural technologies and practices have radically changed over the past 50 years, and will continue to do so (thus projecting a predicable, stable yield output is somewhat futile).
2) We cannot ignore the social and economic context of global agriculture and the scope of challenges that farmers face every day (reducing the complexity of climate change adaptation).
There are also questions of what are we adapting, what are we sustaining, and who will benefit/lose out? Many people attempt to address the first two questions with science; however, they are fundamentally based on human values.

STS provides some useful tools for dealing with scientific imaginations of the future: Sheila Jasanoff calls these "sociotechnical imaginaries," which, similar to the co-production of science and society, are visions of the future that embed and prescribe certain social assumptions. Jasanoff and Kim (2009) use the example of how the United States and North Korea had very different visions of how nuclear power should be used. One technology, but two different interpretations. This goes to show another theme of STS, which is how within "sociotechnical systems," you cannot always separate technologies from their social context. The two are deeply intertwined. This also means that there are no socially-neutral technologies- they will always benefit some, harm some, and have unforeseen consequences.

So imaginaries tend to reduce the complexity of global issues, and also obscure the social implications with scientific certainties. This is very problematic, and I wonder how the continued imagination of plant genetics as a savior will hold up under climate change. Until next time, read this.

July 20, 2011

Global science policy for innovation and adaptation in agriculture

All summer I've been working on a paper, long overdue, for my Innovation Studies class. My main focus is how technological innovation in agriculture promotes or constrains adaptive capacity to climate change. Here is a review and my response to some recent global reports. (If you're wondering why I choose Google's Mendel-themed logo today, scroll to the bottom!)

Due to the importance of agriculture to international development efforts, international consortiums such as the World Bank have examined the prospects for future agricultural research and innovation, increasingly in the context of climate change adaptation. Especially in Africa, agriculture-based technology transfer has been a main focus of organizations like the United Nations Development Programme’s Climate Change Adaptation Team (Tessa & Kurukulasuriya, 2010). The "technology transfer" model has been upheld since the Green Revolution, but agricultural development paradigms are beginning to shift towards an "innovation systems" approach (McIntyre et al., 2009).

The international development literature also examines the synergies between agricultural innovation and adaptive capacity. A World Bank report on agricultural innovation addresses adaptive capacity, though not specifically with regards to climate change, stating that:
Using technical assistance... does not build capacity to innovate unless it is linked to specific efforts to learn from these experiences and develop networks that can both anticipate changes and bring in the expertise to deal with them as needed. In other words, firefighting approaches result in ad hoc responses but not in a sustainable capacity to respond…. Sectors or organizations require an adaptive capacity, whereby they are plugged into sources of information about the changing environment. The other facet of adaptive capacity is that it requires links to the sources of knowledge and expertise needed to tackle a varied and unpredictable set of innovation tasks. (World Bank, 2006, p. 70)
Based on a 2009 World Bank report on the same topic, innovative capacity and adaptive capacity are used somewhat interchangeably (again, not necessarily in the context of climate change, but rather broader economic, social, and environmental change) (Rajalahti, Janssen, & Pehu, 2009). However, as opposed to the emerging innovation systems approach of major development organizations, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and also under the World Bank umbrella, tends to take a more reductionist approach to science and technology innovation. They often make broad claims such as, “Even without climate change, greater investments in agricultural science and technology are needed to meet the demands of a world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050… Agricultural science- and technology-based solutions are essential to meet those demands,” based on global models and metrics of yield and calories (Nelson et al., 2010, p. viii).

The CGIAR recently launched a “Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security” (CCAFS) program area that brings together global experts on climate change and agriculture. The CCFAS, like many mainstream international development agencies, takes a vulnerability approach to climate change and rural livelihoods. Despite some focus on reconciling the supply and demand of science (for example, through boundary work), linear models such as “Feeding climate information into climate-limited livelihood systems holds a great deal of promise” often prevail (CGIAR, 2009, p. 19). In the case of the CGIAR, there are constraints on both the supply and demand side of innovation in international agricultural research systems. The CGIAR has a history of investing in plant genetic research, so there is a bias towards plant breeding and biotechnology that can result in narrow research objectives (Dalrymple, 2006). On the demand side, adoption of technological innovations is constrained by farmers’ perspectives, which are often highly local and limited by time-scale (Dalrymple, 2006). Lybbert and Sumner (2010) explicitly address the opportunities and constraints for technological innovation and adoption of climate-relevant technologies (for both mitigation and adaptation) in developing countries. They point out government interventions that can have a significant impact on technological developments and farmers’ adaptive capacity, such as intellectual property rights and research and development priorities.

A report titled “The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture” identifies climate change impacts as one of the most pressing concerns of global agriculture (Pretty et al., 2010). The authors frame climate change adaptation in the context of tradeoffs in the ‘food, energy and environment trilemma’ (Tilman et al., 2009), and ask questions such as, “How can the resilience of agricultural systems be improved to both gradual climate change and increased climatic variability and extremes?” (Pretty et al., 2010, p. 225). Questions 59-72 deal explicitly with increasing farmers’ innovativeness and adaptive capacity through models of agricultural extension, participatory research, gender-equity at all levels of research and extension efforts, and improving overall rural livelihoods (Pretty et al., 2010).

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development Global Report is another recent and comprehensive article on the state of global agriculture and science and technology policy. On the topic of climate change, it states that, “Agricultural households and enterprises need to adapt to climate change but they do not yet have the experience in and knowledge of handling these processes, including increased pressure due to biofuel production” (McIntyre et al., 2009, p. 3). The authors propose to increase the reach of extension education and access to natural and financial capital as ways to promote farmer adoption of technologies, as well as exploiting synergies between knowledge and technological innovation. In terms of climate change adaptation, the authors lay out two pathways: high technology (crop, soil, and climate modeling, plant genetic improvement) and low technology (irrigation, farm management practices). It is worth noting that the high technology approach of biotechnology and climate models are “supply heavy” and rely significantly on future technological breakthroughs, whereas the low technology approaches are “win-win” adaptations for smallholder farmers that both improve yields and increase adaptive capacity. 

However, one of the climate take-home messages of agricultural innovation scholars is that future technological innovation and global market trends are likely to be more important than the negative impacts of climate change. The predicted gradual climatic shifts will allow institutional innovation to occur in agricultural research, especially in light of the United States’ history of making cheap food a priority through market structures (such as subsidies and disaster insurance) and investment in technology. Bill Easterling (1996) predicts that farmers may face some climate related losses, an increase in global demand (thus the need for higher yields or more cropland), and overall increased constraints on farm finances. Technological innovations such as land management techniques, crop genetic diversity, and rapid response to inputs such as energy prices will be more important.

In my paper I examined how different agricultural technologies- from plant breeding and varieties, to irrigation, to climate forecasts- can present opportunities and constraints for adaptation. Something that's been on my mind lately is the utilization of plant genetic resources (hence the Gregor Mendel logo!) for climate adaptation in agriculture. More on that soon!

July 18, 2011

On innovation and saving the world: What does Google have to do with the Green Revolution?

Do you think Google will save the world? A recent article in The New Republic by Evengy Morozov posits that Google thinks that it can. But will Google be brought down by the structures of corporate greed and profit-mongering? The author sets up a dualism between the forces of good and evil in Google's quest for cyber-domination. While the author tends to paint Google in pejorative terms, and undervalues the positive benefits of technological innovation, he touches on themes that resonate with my own research.

According to the author, Google sees itself as a neo-Enlightenment institution to organize and diffuse knowledge. Readers of my blog will recognize that this Enlightenment-based, linear model of science and society interactions is mostly false. Certainly, we can use information as a tool in decision-making, but it's also now easier to pick and choose the information you want to believe using Google. And as Morozov points out, Google's "algorithmic neutrality" is embedded with assumptions that turn out to be fundamentally value-based. This is a theme I see over and over again in Science and Technology Studies.

Altogether, the author quite adeptly navigates the ethical quandaries of a huge corporation like Google. His core argument is that Google can hide from it's value-based agenda using technocratic ideals. The article's main flaw, however, is ignoring the co-production of science and society that is going on here. Google doesn't have monolithic control over the internet, and is constantly shaped by feedback from its users and how they choose to adapt Google to their own needs. 

This whole article reminded me of something I read in The Economist earlier this summer, about whether the technological advances of IBM or the philanthropy of the Carnegie Foundation have made a larger impact on our society:
At the same time, there was growing excitement about the capacity of expert knowledge to transform not just business but society, too. Carnegie and Rockefeller reflected this in calling their thoughtful, long-term approach to giving “scientific philanthropy” (today’s donors call it “strategic philanthropy”), which they contrasted with the short-term wastefulness of much of the charity of the time.
In a way, therefore, IBM and the Carnegie Corporation had similar missions. The Carnegie Corporation’s explicit goal was to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding”. Thomas Watson senior, who ran IBM for over 40 years, made “Think” its motto and built the business around “the idea that information was going to be the big thing in the 20th century”, according to Richard Tedlow, author of “The Watson Dynasty”. He established a research arm in 1917, which went on to generate world-class, blue-sky research as well as more patents than any other corporate laboratory. (The Economist, 2011)
 And of course, this brings us to a discussion of mid-century agricultural development efforts that are collectively referred to as the Green Revolution. Morozov also makes this connection, writing,
[Google's] efforts at spreading connectivity, building Internet infrastructure, and promoting geek culture in the developing world are a logical extension of the American-led modernization project—aimed at bringing underdeveloped societies to Western standards of living, often by touting fancy technological fixes such as contraceptives (to stabilize population growth) and high-yield crops (to solve the undernourishment problem)—that began in the 1960s... Google’s caveat to the classical modernization theory—stemming from Walt Rostow’s belief in take-off points, whereby countries, once they reach certain levels in their economic development, tend to move in the same direction—is intriguing. (Morozov, 2011).
I wrote a paper last semester about how the imagination of the food crisis and population bomb, from about the 1940s to 1970s, drove the U.S.'s international aid agendas from food aid to agricultural development (self-sufficiency of developing countries). This also reflects the influence of philanthropy of private foundations, although the U.S. Department of State got involved starting in the 1960s. While the Green Revolution ultimately resulted in higher yielding crops, this was by no means a politically-neutral path of technological development. Inherent values about the connections between higher yields as a technological fix to both hunger and population pressure shaped the research institutions that developed during this time. This impacts have also been unequally distributed, as technological innovations tend to spread first to more affluent "early adopters." One of the main things I learned from my historical research on the Green Revolution is that good intentions most often lead to complex and unintended outcomes, given the nature of technology and its interactions with society.

Google, however, is different than the Green Revolution. The capital required to purchase a simple smart phone and access Google's features is almost minuscule. end users, especially in developing countries, are terrifically proficient at adapting phones, and even entire telecommunication networks, to local needs and conditions.

Fortunately, international development agencies increasingly recognize the importance of technological innovation, in sectors as diverse as food security to maternal health. I sometimes wonder, if I could sit down with the founders of Google, or the administrator of USAID, what would I tell them about technological innovtion? Based on the story of Google, IBM, and philanthropists, what would you say?

July 8, 2011

Experts, Expertise, and Impure Science

Yesterday we finished our discussion of The Honest Broker by asking ourselves some very provocative questions about the future of science policy advice. We asked questions like, "why is science privileged as a tool in decision-making, and scientists privileged as experts on matters that are often about values?" Involving scientists in policy-making about issues as diverse as breast cancer research to environmental controversies often results in one outcome: "we need more science!" Yet I made the point that we are often operating outside the bounds of "normal science"- this is something that STS scholars have called "post-normal science." The late Stephen Schneider has an excellent explanation of post-normal science with regards to climate policy. Post-normal science is the antithesis of "normal," but it is also the opposite of the ideal of "pure science." And pure science, of course, is often even regarded by scientists to be unachievable in practice. Pure science plays straight into the linear model of science.

So is "impure science" the same as "post-normal science"? We're about to find out. If I had one book to recommend from all of the reading I did last year, it would be Steve Epstein's Impure Science (Amazon, Google books). Epstein’s book is all about how the boundaries between expert and activist become blurred as each shape the other. It's about how a group of AIDS activists worked to challenge the biomedical model of drug testing that required slow, precise double-blind experiments, in order to more rapidly treat AIDS patients with experimental drugs under the "community-based" research model.

The chapters I've read gave brief history of AIDS clinical trials and the associated ethical issues; the emergence of community-based research and the breakdown of expertise and power in medicine; and the landscape of AIDS activism and how activists framed AIDS and their own expertise of the science of AIDS drugs (see also this related article by Epstein). Epstein’s argument is that AIDS activism both produced legitimate results (from community-based research) as well as challenged the structure of FDA regulation, and thus challenged the norms of “pure science.” This, I think, is the perfect example of post-normal science, and what STS scholars call "extended peer communities"- opening the research and decision-making process to non-scientists, including activists, patients, and community health practitioners. The figure above is supposed to show how in cases of post-normal science, the group of experts must be expanded beyond just scientists. I believe that this model could be applied to other issues of health and environmental issues that have high uncertainty and values that need to be reconciled.

If you'd like to read more about experts and activism in environmental controversies, I wrote a paper about it last semester. It's more or less a literature review of STS things, but hopefully you can find some nuggets of sapience.

July 6, 2011

5) Science communication and climate change

A topic that frequently comes up between me and my colleagues at Michigan State University this summer is of science communication. At the Science and Democracy Network meeting that I attended last week, one of the most contentious topics was over climate change science and communication, and what is our role as scholars to clarify (or "complexify," as is usually the case) the discourse.

So I thought I'd put together a resource list of blogs and papers on the subject of science communication, from an STS perspective (and particularly about climate change). First, Alice Rose Bell has a great blog on science communication, and even already has a helpful resource list! My other favorite climate change communication blogs are Dot Earth by Andy Revkin, Age of Engagement by Matthew Nisbet, Open the Echo Chamber by Edward Carr, and The Intersection by Chris Mooney. While I don't always agree with the partisan positions of many of these bloggers, I find myself enraptured by their interesting reflections on the latest research and controversies in climate change science and communication.

One of the contributions of STS research to science communication studies is of reshaping the "deficit model" of science communication into more nuanced views of public understanding of and participation in science. The deficit model is similar to both the "loading dock" and "linear model" of science and policy, in that it upholds scientists as disconnected experts, and that the public is an "empty vessel" to fill with objective knowledge. Some great papers on new models of science communication are "Do Scientists Understand the Public?" by Mooney (2010) and "What's next for science communication?" by Nisbet and Scheufele (2010).

So why did I open this post with a political picture? Because there is solid evidence that despite levels of scientific knowledge, political affiliation is the biggest determinant of whether U.S. citizens believe in climate change (summary here, full article by McCright and Dunlap (2011) here). I was lucky to take a class with Aaron McCright during my undergrad at MSU, and this really sparked my interest in the science politics of climate change. Since I took that class two years ago, I've been following the climate change communication literature. To start off, a classic article you need to read is "Making climate hot" by Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling (2004). Communicating climate change is inherently difficult because of the high-level science as well as framing of risks and uncertainties, but Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011) have some advice on framing climate uncertainty here.

And if you're interested in the whole "climate skeptics" debate, you need to read Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway's book, Merchants of Doubt. Also, my new favorite blog resource is "Skeptical Science," which does a really good job at clearly communicating the science behind climate change, and addressing skeptical claims. Finally, Chris Mooney once again comes through with some commentary and a list of resources. Interestingly, even in the case of climate skeptics, the deficit model proves false. More scientific knowledge does not automatically make people "believe" in climate change. People's political orientations have a strong impact on what information we will use to support our own values. And overwhelmingly, even in the face of "Climategate" and uncertainty, the majority of Americans trust scientists and believe in climate change and support energy policy.

I want to conclude by saying that none of this is simple. Sometimes when I'm telling people about my research, I avoid the topic of climate change because I don't want to get into a debate. But while working at MSU this summer and last, we've noticed that when you sit with people face to face, and don't impose your own views but rather ask about their own thoughts and experiences, it leads to a more productive conversation. And having worked in a lab during my undergrad, I know how hard it is to "get out there" and communicate science- but there are a few easy ways, from working with student groups of all ages, to writing an effective op-ed, to learning how to present your research in a way that's accessible to non-scientists. An insightful comment on Alice Rose Bell's blog states, "if you want to reach young audiences, stop thinking of them as audiences and don’t merely involve them: work out what’s central about your project and invite them to do that."