– Andy Stirling

21 October 2019

How can research and innovation best further social progress? How to correct the error of seeing scientific and technological advance as whatever happens to be produced by incumbent interests? How to give as much care to the direction of research and innovation in any given area, as to its pace, benefits or risks? How can societies as a whole do better at steering science and technology in order to foster greater equality, environmental integrity and human in international development?

These are some key questions to be addressed in a distinctive new kind of international collaboration funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and led by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex and the Department of Science Technology Engineering and Public Policy (STEAPP) at University College London.

Building in part on the ‘pathways approach’ developed by the longstanding Sussex-based STEPS Centre, this ambitious project is undertaken with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The core aim is to help build towards capabilities for greater rigour and accountability in the steering of directions for research and innovation.

This ‘STRINGS’ project (on steering research and innovation for the global goals) will pioneer new approaches to the mapping of research and innovation in relation to targets and metrics agreed internationally under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. By enhancing understanding of key drivers of research, innovation and the SDGs, STRINGS tries to answer the above crucial questions.

Of course, to ask about ‘steering’ research and innovation, does not imply that science and technology are the only means to human progress. What counts as ‘research’ can take many forms – involving ‘lay’ and ‘indigenous’ knowledge at least as much as academia, government or business.

Indeed, some of the most relevant innovations for the global goals are from ‘grassroots’ civil society and only partly involve technological change. Others are entirely behavioural, institutional or cultural. So what counts as ‘research’ and ‘innovation’ needs to be opened up to social science, the arts and humanities – and a multiplicity of non-academic practices. After all, not only is all technology inherently social, but many important social innovations are not about technology at all.

In all their diversity, then, the parts played by research and innovation for sustainability can be very important. Science and technology can play central roles in enhancing provision of clean water, food, shelter, energy, mobility, communications and human security – and sharing impacts more equally.

Yet – despite many well-proven benefits – many forms of science and technology are also deeply implicated in some of the most serious global sustainability challenges, such as climate disruption, water pollution, biodiversity loss, urban smogs, occupational risks, stratospheric ozone depletion and many environmental health disorders.

Here, global patterns of lock-in – like those around fossil fuels, toxic and radioactive materials, auto-mobility, inequitable pharmaceutical priorities, soil-eroding agriculture, and IP-intensive seed production – can all impede moves towards sustainability. And it is striking that the largest area for global public funding of science and technology, lies in military and national security interests.

So, it remains an important but neglected feature of global research and innovation, that many of the most important incentives are seriously misaligned with Sustainable Development. Private profit, organisational reputation, national prestige, and military dominance, for instance, are not listed anywhere in the Global Goals. But they remain major drivers of much science and technology.

This is not to say that these familiar forces in the global political economy are necessarily always bad. In the contemporary world, they are of course unavoidable facts of life. And fortuitous alignments, ‘spin-offs’, or ‘trickle down’ do occasionally arise. By harnessing these prevailing forces, worthwhile aims can sometimes be delivered. But due recognition for such serendipities should not slide into expedient blinkers or naïve assumptions. If steering towards sustainability is a side-effect of other motives, then neither the process nor the outcomes will be as effective as they could be.

So it is not unduly ‘critical’ – but simply rational – to query the sufficiency of prevailing political dynamics in the steering of sustainable research and innovation. If international policy making is to be as effective as possible in addressing complex interacting Sustainable Development Goals, then it is not only difficult technical challenges that must be tackled, but some tricky political questions too.

And central to these questions, is that the politics of research and innovation for sustainability arise not only outside science and technology, but also within associated institutions and cultures of expertise. Contrary to much mainstream discussion, then, the dynamics of research and technology are not just technical – as if somehow solely determined by Nature. They are also highly political. So, in many neglected ways, inadvertent biases around sustainability can arise not just in ‘speaking truth to power’ but also in the many subtle ways that (even in science) ‘power shapes truth’.

Take, for example, the routine ways in which sustainability challenges are typically framed in relation to technology and innovation. Too often, general debates about how best to address some particular Global Goal, get reduced to far narrower discussions about how to implement whatever happens to be the particular (usually technical) ‘solution’ most favoured by influential interests in that field.

It implies no criticism of diverse techniques for gene editing (GE), for instance, to note that these options typically remain significantly privileged in funding for ‘sustainable agriculture’. Likewise, curative pharmaceuticals are typically favoured over preventive strategies in health. And technology-based solutions in general are often prioritised over other kinds of social innovation.

To see this, is not to make accusations. It is simply that sustainable research and innovation is embedded in wider economic and social gradients emphasising the most positive private returns on investment. Rents on intellectual property, market share, control of supply chains or synergies across products (for instance) are all strongly emphasised as drivers of innovation – in the hope of making business models more competitive in demanding global markets.

The problem is, that other kinds of innovation may often offer greater sustainability benefits. But if these are not linked with similarly attractive incentives, then it is far more difficult to realise them.

When compared with GE, for instance, ecological farming, biological pest control, intercropping or seed-sharing often can deliver significantly improved outcomes for farmers and their environments. But these can remain neglected. Likewise – despite its manifest comparative advantages in many parts of the world – renewable energy remains unduly side-lined compared with nuclear power.

Nor are these ‘internal’ sources of inadvertent bias only found around innovation. They also occur within science more narrowly. This is of course obvious for the large proportion of global research conducted in commercial settings, or linked by evaluation processes to the narrow interests of private firms or mission-oriented agencies. Resulting pressures help shape the forms and directions taken by research, just as much as innovation.

But beyond this, it can easily be forgotten that even ostensibly ‘pure’ science or ‘independent’ academia can display its own formative dynamics of power and privilege. Some disciplines and institutions are more prestigious and better funded than others. Career incentives and broader ‘impact’ agendas are more rewarding of alignments with incumbent interests. No matter how ‘arm’s length’, public funding also brings its own biases.

So: familiar processes of ‘lock in’ can act inside academic science, as well as within applied research. The resulting biases can warp not only the applications – but also the content – of scientific knowledge. And this can apply not only to what counts as sustainability ‘solutions’, but also to the ways the underlying ‘problems’ are framed.

Policy pressures for ‘elevator pitches’ that ‘keep it simple’, for example, amplify the scientific prestige of reductionism to suppress complexities and prepare the ground for simplistic ‘technological fixes’. Resulting biases can disadvantage more distributed social innovations (that may be more effective) and instead favour standardised technological infrastructures under centralised forms of control.

Why for instance – despite repeated recognition for the importance of more systemic processes among proteins, cells, metabolisms and ecologies – is so much investment in research disproportionately driven by the supposedly determining power of genes alone? Is this anything to do with the greater ease with which intellectual property can be appropriated on specific (ostensibly neatly-identifiable) genes, rather than the more complex systems in which they are embedded?

Either way: to raise such queries, is not to criticise science in general. Indeed, it is by focusing on these possible mechanisms of bias, that some crucial distinctive qualities of science can come to the fore. It underscores the well-recognised importance, for example, of aspirations to make science as independent as possible; to uphold the value of evidence; to make results widely accessible; and to maintain constant scepticism. As much outside as inside science, critical faculties are very valuable.

Peer review, for instance, is in some ways a crucial defence of quality and robustness in science. But in other ways, personal bias, disciplinary doctrines, patronage structures, organisational interests and wider institutional pressures can make peer review a big part of the problem. If the laudable aspirations of science help drive greater humility, then they can be highly positive. But if they become a prop for authoritarian claims-making, then they can undermine science itself.

So, although many distinctive scientific practices are essential, there is no quality intrinsic to academic science, that entirely resists either the external pressures, or the internal politics discussed here. Without deliberate attention, then, ‘science for sustainability’ is likely to be biased. And the same is even more true of technology and innovation. So, this is why deliberate and accountable steering – of kinds the STRINGS project aims to help – is so important for sustainable development.

And, as if this were not challenge enough, signs are emerging that many powerful global trends are further aggravating the situation. Pressures of globalisation often serve more to exacerbate, than to relieve, these problems. For instance, growing international regulatory homogenisation, descending trade standards and retrenching authoritarianism are all compounding these tendencies – pushing sustainability governance into ever more scientistic language, which conceals underlying politics.

In many debates about research for the Global Goals, for instance, rhetorics around ‘science based decisions’ pretend at single prescriptions with little uncertainty. Specific privileged kinds of expertise are upheld as ‘sound science’. Other values and forms of knowledge are marginalised. Reasoned criticism of the technologies this favours, is indiscriminately branded as generally ‘anti-technology’.

Nowhere are these politics more pernicious, than when one innovation is asserted at the expense of other possible alternatives, as if it uniquely constitutes a ‘pro-innovation’ strategy. It is untenable in other policy areas, to advocate one particular policy as ‘pro-policy’ and label critics as generally ‘anti-policy’. Yet such practices are again common in debates on science, technology and sustainability.

Since innovation in any given field is always inherently about choosing among alternative pathways, then selective ‘pro-innovation’ rhetorics on the part of just one pathway are seriously misleading. Albeit inadvertently, this kind of language is also deeply undermining of the qualities of scientific rigour and democratic accountability that are so essential for achieving sustainability.

So, it is against this backdrop that the STRINGS project seeks to make its contribution. And here of course, caution is required that the sheer depth and scope of the challenge should not lead either to paralysis or to its own form of over-reaching or simplistic ‘solutionism’. Indeed, instead of aiming straight at single ‘solutions’, the STRINGS project seeks instead to help illuminate diverse ‘options’.

To this end, the first basic step, towards which the STRINGS project seeks to contribute, then, is to experiment with different kinds of ‘mapping’. And here it is essential that neither the resulting methods, nor any associated practices and institutions, themselves become taken as a new license for the technocratic hubris and concealed interests identified in this blog.

What the STRINGS project tries to do instead, is to highlight the relevant pluralities of political perspectives, varieties of contexts and diversities of alternative research and innovation pathways. So, rather than just assuming that whatever emerges from a given area of science, is automatically the best way to address sustainability, this kind of mapping can (despite its limits), help show how any given field research and innovation offers diverse responses even to a single Global Goal.

This in turn can help provoke interactive questioning of manners and degrees in which contrasting kinds of research and innovation address different framings of sustainability ‘problems’. So, such maps may offer not only direct inputs to policy making, but also demonstrate a new kind of knowledge base. This informs of the political (rather than just technical) implications of different areas of research and innovation, in relation to different views of sustainability challenges.

So, in this sense, the ‘medium is the message’. The mapping of research and innovation is not a static ‘output’, but an ongoing process. Working in connection with many other parallel strands of work worldwide, the STRINGS project is seeking to help pioneer a new kind of governance discourse about how research and innovation of diverse kinds can help address the pressing Global Goals.

Only in this way can the core imperative of sustainability truly be furthered. Arising in decades of struggle, this vision is not only that social progress is essential, but that it’s particular directions should be democratically steered. This message is nowhere more crucial than for communities and environments that remain too often marginalised in mainstream research and innovation. By mapping patterns in relations between the Global Goals and existing priorities in international science, these are the imperatives towards which the STRINGS project aims to contribute.