Research News

Earth Institute Centers Addressing the Issues That Matter: The Program on Science, Technology, and Global Development

2009-05-26

Nearly ten years after the Earth Institute was created, the social scientists of the Program on Science, Technology, and Global Development (PSTGD) are still devoted to understanding the uneven benefits from major scientific and technological innovations that shape our world and the way that we interact with them.  Their reasons for doing so are many, but one key motivator is that this is a critical component to the concept of sustainable development – a way of thinking and acting that includes the billions of people who have been left behind when it comes to enjoying what many people consider to be the “modern” lifestyle of the 21st century.

The PSTGD is a unique and diverse research program.  Richard Nelson, the program’s director, observes, “There are many research centers dedicated to the study of science, technology and economic development. However, our program is unique in having its central focus on the unevenness of progress.”

Like the many other centers and programs of the Earth Institute, PSTGD has a very global focus, since living standards continue to be so low in some nations and so high in others. In addition, there has been little improvement in understanding or know-how relevant to many important human activities, like educational practice. 

The primary research sponsored by PSTGD is concerned with the very uneven capabilities in science and technology across nations and how this affects economic development. It is also concerned with the processes through which, in the past, some countries that were significantly behind the frontier caught up and the processes that can support catching up today. “The opportunities and the obstacles to catching up in the 21st century will be different in important ways from the conditions that influenced pathways to catching up at the time of Japan’s rapid economic development, and, somewhat later, Korea’s and Taiwan’s. We want to identify the pathways that are available now,” says Nelson.

PSTGD research also includes study of the roles played by indigenous universities and public laboratories in the catching up process, which almost certainly will need to be greater now than in an earlier era. It also looks at how the tightening of world intellectual property regimes, under the treaty known as TRIPS (the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), will affect the catching-up process.

The program is also sponsoring research to illuminate questions like why the advance of know-how and practice has been so slow in fields like education compared with many fields in medicine, and why, within medicine, developing an effective vaccine for HIV/AIDS has proved so much more difficult than the successful effort of more than half a century ago to develop a vaccine for polio. “Questions like these obviously are very important, but have received very little study,” argues Nelson. If we are to make progress in dealing with important problems where efforts to advance useful knowledge up to now have achieved little, we need to know what makes those problems so difficult.”

In both of these areas, PSTGD is operating as a central node in a research network involving scholars in a number of different countries and with different disciplinary backgrounds. Scholars at the United Nations University in Maastricht, the University of Manchester, the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, and Hitosubahi University and GRIPS in Japan, have played a major role in several of the projects sponsored by the program. Research on how nations behind the frontiers catch up mostly involves scholars from developing nations.

In conclusion, Nelson says: “In virtually all arenas of human activity, and all corners of the globe, the state of scientific knowledge and the technologies that have been developed over the years are critical factors enabling how human needs can be met and how groups of concerned individuals – like those at the Earth Institute – can better facilitate the meeting of these needs.”