Participatory approaches to science and technology

Tom Wakeford News

This article, written by Tom Wakeford from ETC Group, discusses participatory technology assessment, sharing its key features and providing case studies to illustrate some of its dimensions.

1. No technology developed without us is for us

The belief that new technologies will provide the main cure to humanity’s problems is increasingly common across the globe. From industrial agriculture, where proponents of genetic modification argue that new altered crops can help feed the world, to digital healthcare, where some propose artificial intelligence and robotics to prevent people needing to see a doctor.

Powerful individuals and organisations profess an almost blind faith that we can live better, more comfortable, and more efficient lives by embracing every new technology under the sun, regardless of who developed it, who profits from it and what the real motivations and potential consequences might be. They define advanced society as one that embraces technological innovation, while labelling those who ask questions and adopt a critical position toward certain technologies as ‘anti-development.’

However, many new technologies come with serious potential risks. When developed by powerful groups, such innovations are initially designed to make a profit, rather than to improve social or ecological conditions in the world. These technologies may have the effect of exerting greater control over, or even harming, society and nature.

Participatory technology assessment (PTA) is a means whereby people, especially those who have traditionally been excluded from decisions, are able to influence the development and application of technologies.

PTA forms part of a family of approaches known as participatory action research (PAR). In PAR, people who had previously been marginalised are able to designate the focus of the participatory and dialogue processes themselves. Its premise, to be agreed by everyone involved, is that no one group knows everything.

PTA distinguishes between mature technologies, the development of which has involved participatory and ecological impact assessments over a period of years or even centuries, and the imposition by industries, with the collaboration or indifference of authorities of quick technical ‘fixes’ (often called techno-fixes) – an attempt to provide a “solution” to a perceived problem by the means of technical solutions alone, without a broad-based assessment of what additional problems they might cause.

PTA has the potential to act as a counterweight to the current spread of ‘techno-fixes’. It calls for the development of technologies to become more rigorous by eliminating potential blind spots in the perspectives of both professionals on the one hand and everyday experts on the other. Social movements composed of people living with HIV popularised the slogan ‘no research about us without us is for us’. PTA’s equivalent slogan could be ‘no technology developed without us is for us’.

2. Key features of participatory technology assessment

Six things that PTA does is:

  1. Attempt to contribute to an improvement of the human condition through repeated cycles of collective action and reflection, with the members of the PTA collective all working on an equal footing.
  2. Raise two related questions: ‘Who has relevant knowledge?’, and ‘Who should have the power?’ with regards to a technology.
  3. Answer these questions by challenging assumptions of expert autonomy (i.e. that professional technologists know best and therefore should be in charge).
  4. Demand that institutions developing new technologies should decide the agenda of their research programmes in collaboration with others outside the institutions who have relevant knowledge and may be affected by its outcome.
  5. Aim to support intercultural dialogue between those whose knowledge and interests have historically been marginalised, and treated solely as passive consumers of technology, and those experts and institutions in dominant positions.
  6. Encourage professional scientists and technologists to abandon the myth of neutrality and become more fully involved in struggles related to people who are experiencing oppression.

3. Case study: RED-TECLA

The Social Evaluation Network of Technologies in Latin America (RED-TECLA) came together in 2016. It brings together a range of individuals and groups across the continent to assess new and emerging technologies that may affect people and the environment.

The process leading up to the creation of TECLA began several years before 2016. Part of its background is related to the collaborations among the organizations and communities working against GMOs.  In Mexico, a broad network of peasants and civil society organization converged with concerned scientists and agronomists in denouncing the impacts of transgenic corn; in Ecuador people formed a continental network on the continent against Transgenics (RALLT, Red por una América Latina Libre de Transgénicos) and in Paraguay and Argentina, glyphosate victims of soy monocultures met  through their work to resist the threats to their health and environment in the movement of  “Fumigated Communities.” These groups and other in Latin America were exploring the possibility of supporting each other’s efforts.

ETC Group in Latin America often took part in these collaborations. In this context, ETC group shared also information on other proposed techno-fixes beyond GMOs, which posed risks to society, such as nanotechnology, geoengineering and synthetic biology. This level of information-sharing was quite unique in Latin America; ETC Group began to free up information about new technologies that circulated mostly only among academics and industry, thus making it available for everyone to access and opening the ground for civil society and popular movements to start a broader discussion of the implications of emerging technologies.

Through their involvement in TECLA, participants began to raise broader, overarching questions about what was common to campaigns active in the Latin America region. These included:

  • What did the campaigns against transgenics have in common with other campaigns, e.g. against agrochemicals, in defence of water, against pollution, etc?
  • What united urban with rural struggles?
  • What did surveillance technologies have to do with people getting cancers?

TECLA participants who had raised questions about particular technologies began to work towards an overall critique of techno-fixes.

Rather than responding urgently to specific issues in silos, groups came together to identify issues related to the range of potentially-disastrous technologies that were being imposed in the Latin American region as a whole.

In addition to identifying common ground between various struggles, the groups that came together to form TECLA identified a major problem with international governance around new technologies. In particular, they found that the precautionary principle – a legal principle requiring the exercise of precaution when scientific knowledge about a new technology is uncertain and where there exists a threat of exposure to harm by the public – was being increasingly eroded.

TECLA Study 1: Assessing Terminator Seeds: A Social Evaluation of Technology

The first of TECLA’s processes of technology assessment focused on the history of the terminator technology, a controversial technology developed by publicly funded breeders at the US Department of Agriculture and Monsanto. The first patents for the technology were discovered by civil society groups in 1998. Also referred to as ‘suicide seeds,’ terminator technology was intended to genetically engineer plants to produce sterile seeds, preventing farmers from saving and reusing harvested seeds. It was never introduced: in the year 2000, it was struck down through a de facto moratorium, including on experimental releases, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. At that time, gene giants like Syngenta and Monsanto had patents on the technology and were keen on its introduction, with no evaluation of the developers of the technology to assess its risks, or to consider its potential social and environmental impacts.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and social movements filled in this void in risk assessment, undertaking their own assessment of terminator, and communicated its impacts to a wide public and to policymakers. Civil society groups concluded that terminator would restrict farmers’ ability to produce food and would destroy their practices of seed-selection and seed-saving dating back 10 millennia. The campaign rapidly gained momentum. Soon, big agricultural institutions like the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization) and the CGIAR (Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres) rejected the technology and a moratorium was put in place at the CBD in 2000. The campaign against terminator was successful for many reasons, not least of which was the narrative and framing. The word “terminator” was coined by ETC Group and its allies in lieu of the technical definition of the technology by the CBD (first called TPS, Technology Protection System, and later, GURTS, Genetic Use Restriction Technology). With time, Monsanto itself came to call this technology ‘terminator’ – a word that illustrated the life destroying objective of the technology and the danger it posed to people’s lives. The process of fighting down terminator was a combination of this concerted effort to shape narratives alongside lobbying at different levels including at international fora like the CBD; mobilizing farmers, indigenous peoples’ organizations, social movements, scientists, and public plant breeders; creating materials about terminator that could be translated into several local languages, and importantly, getting the science right and striving for accurate in the technical/legal assessments of the technology and patent claims. These efforts legitimized CSOs as sources of reliable information about the technology and its potential impacts.

Terminator turned out to be a typical example of a social technology assessment that had a direct impact on a technology that was of high importance for the industry, who wanted to introduce widely in the world. TECLA wrote the story, interviewed the protagonists and presented the process as a good case of social, participatory assessment of a disruptive technology. In 2018, TECLA published this case in study called Death Sciences: From Terminator to Gene Drives. One of the aims of this document was to help people to understand what technology assessment is; rather than seeing it as a person sitting at a desk and writing a report, TECLA’s  re-telling of the history of the Terminator controversy demonstrated how different people came together to assess, challenge and finally defeat a highly dangerous new technology through a range of strategies.

TECLA Study 2: Assessing Stevia: A Reflection on Contrasting Perspectives

TECLA undertook a second process of technology assessment on stevia, a sweetener and sugar substitute native to Brazil and Paraguay, which has been used as a medicinal plant and commodity by the synthetic biology industry, without the consent of the indigenous people who use it and on whose lands it is found. Among other impacts, the industrial use of stevia constitutes a case of biopiracy, alongside cultural appropriation and it is an example on how new emerging technologies impact on society, farmers, communities. It was further evidence to that which had already been gathered about the negative effects of global free trade agreements on communities in Latin America. Peasant organizations that were part of TECLA wanted to discuss the impacts of the industrial use of stevia; TECLA provided a platform and an opportunity to assess its threats.

In 2017, the TECLA assembly decided to assess stevia in the form of a peoples´ tribunal, but farmers from Paraguay who use stevia regularly thought that it was premature and choose a different methodology. The issue turned out to be more complex than expected and several diverse perspectives on the use of stevia came up. Some of the indigenous communities thought that one of the main challenges was to get companies to pay for benefit sharing, while others had a position against privatization as a whole. Another difference in perspectives arose between indigenous people from Paraguay who believe that stevia is sacred, and small farmers that respect their perspective but see it as a plant that can be cultivated, as many people in the country uses Stevia and can´t find if it is only collected in the areas where it grows wild.

Indeed, in Paraguay, stevia has dozens of different uses, including as a healthy substance for the stomach and liver and as a remedy for diabetes. But Paraguay’s indigenous people take offence to the idea that stevia be planted.  To them it is a wild plant, part of their culture, and not a commodity to be farmed and sold in international markets. While agreeing that Stevia should not be treated as an international commodity, agroecological peasants in Paraguay consider that to plant, process and sell stevia in Paraguay is a dignified source of income, and they want to do that guided by the indigenous communities that know all about the plant. They see the planting of stevia as a political act of independence and against the historical robbery of resources from the Latin American territories. On a different aspect of the problem, in Africa, where the majority of stevia is grown for export, African small farmers are concerned about the competition of the synthetic biology stevia and the impact on their ability to sell stevia as a product in international markets.

TECLA finally decided to have a forum on stevia bringing together these contrasting perspectives. The Guarani people gave their testimonies and learnt about the synthetic biology uses of stevia from different researchers with an economic analysis, and could also see the agroecological peasant perspectives. The technology assessment, which is still not yet complete, became a process of reflection about the different ways to assess this valuable plant.

The Future of TECLA

TECLA’s first meeting on new technologies took place in 2016, and regional TECLA meetings occurred subsequently. Today, TECLA has an international committee, an advisory committee of scientists and academics, and twelve member organizations from Mexico to Argentina, including peasant organizations, youth groups and urban movements. The network enjoys a degree of prestige as a result of having integrated delegates from the most relevant social and popular movements in the country, as well as prominent and well known critical scientists and academics in the region. This has enabled TECLA to leverage considerable support.

TECLA has identified four main areas of work. One was to develop a critical and dynamic epistemological definition of science and technology. The group introduced fundamental questions such as: What is technology? What is the difference between science and technology? Is it right to say that technologies are neutral? TECLA provides a space where these questions are being explored and answered. The second was to monitor new technologies through a process commonly known as “horizon scanning.” Much of this work is undertaken by ETC Group, which would then inform the TECLA network. The third area of work is to map who is doing what on technology and technology evaluation, including on issues like nuclear power, dams, and others. The final area of work was to monitor and inform civil society about developments in governance at the national, regional and international level, such as the Science, Technology and Innovation Forums in United Nations.

TECLA remains active by staying connected to its members and networks and having regular events throughout the year; In November 2019, the network had a conference and a third assembly, along with public seminars focused on issues such as digital technologies and its impacts in Latin America, the impacts of digitalization on labour and other social, environmental and economic aspects,  including the energy costs of cyber-capitalism.

The challenge of keeping TECLA together in the absence of consistent funding and paid staff is ongoing. Another challenge for TECLA has been to connect with non-Spanish speaking groups in Latin America and globally: the network has thus far produced materials solely in Spanish, separating it from the Caribbean countries as well as Anglophone and Francophone networks. In the time during which it has been active, TECLA has enabled people to start developing critical reflections about technology and science, while still working on the issues they are already campaigning on. In the long term, TECLA plans to have a stronger secretariat and to carry out another technology assessment on technology and water, and on digital technologies.

Further information

A full briefing on participatory technology assessment is currently being prepared by ETC Group.