Saturday, August 08, 2015

Science, Technology and Society

Last week there were two interesting events in New Delhi that gave us interesting perspectives on how Science and Technology is viewed in different societies, and across cultures.

The first was the screening of a documentary at IIC on G.N Ramachandran (aka GNR) the Indian scientist who discovered the triple-helix structure of Collagen, and the second, a talk at CPR by Prof. Sheila Jasanhoff from the Havard Kennedy School titled, "US-EU GM Crops Controversy: A Case for Epistemic Subsidiarity?".

The first one was fairly straightforward. The 30-minute documentary was on GNR, a scientist in newly independent India who sets up a frugal lab at Madras University, and using relatively basic equipment cracks a scientific problem that had eluded the likes of Linus Pauling and Francis Crick (of the DNA fame): the structure of Collagen, the most abundant protein in mammals.

The documentary desribes GNRs struggles to get adequate credit and recognition for this discovery, the attempts by British scientists to delay the publication of his findings in Nature, and of the fact that India had failed to recognise GNR adequately.

Prof. Jasanhoff's talk was on an altogether different plane. A scientist of Indian origin, she described her decision to focus on USA and EU as a "tactical decision" to avoid being straightjacketed as an India Scholar, and of her amazement at the way in which scientific data is interpreted in distinctly different ways across regulatory boundaries. The fact that there is a lack of consensus on this even amongst developed countries is described as the 'Paradox of Risk Governance'.

And what is Epistemic Subsidiarity? Perhaps one way of describing it is that knowledge and undestanding (epistemology) is best handled by devolving decisions on it to the lowest practical level (subsidiarity).

This framework is used to explain the big differences in the way USA and EU countries view Genetically Modified Organisms, leading up to the Asilomar Conference (1975) which drew up, for the first time, guidelines to ensure the safety of Recombinant DNA technology.

My biggest takeaway from both the events was the striking divergence in outlook of Indian scientists and of PIO/NRI scientists. The former has tied itself down in knots by basking in past glories, and creating an incentive system that stifles innovative thinking, while the latter has its sights focused on the future.


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