About the research project

This project focuses on science and technology for development (RTD). A new development paradigm has emerged in the past decade that comprises two key elements. First, it stresses a symmetrical ‘cooperation’ mode rather than an asymmetrical ‘aid’ mode (Bijker & Spaapen, 2006). Second, it recognizes the crucial role to be played by RTD (Box, 2001; Box & Engelhard, 2006). To better understand and further strengthen this central role of RTD, this project draws on the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS) (Bijker, 2006, 2007). Two decades of research in STS has shown that an analysis of research and technology as a social process—thus highlighting the cultures of science, technology and innovation—yields fundamental insights in the nature of knowledge and technology, as well as into the possibilities for science and technology policies (Hackett et al., 2007). One implication of STS research has been a reassessment of the role of indigenous and local knowledge (Prasad, 2005; Shah, 2003, 2005; Verran, 2001). Such work does not romanticise local knowledge and crafts as being traditional, but recognizes that in all societies, science and technology need to be socially well-embedded in order to function as intended. This implies that local and indigenous knowledge cultures are not to be separated and cherished as traditional, but should be connected to modern research and technology programmes—it calls for an innovation of cultures (Bijker, 2009). Thus, the overall aims of this project are to:

  1. investigate the relations between modern science and technology and local, indigenous knowledge and crafts, in order to
  2. better understand the conditions under which research and technology can play a more effective role for development.

This has been done by studying concrete cultures of innovation, and thus drawing lessons for an innovation of cultures [1]. The character of this research is interdisciplinary, it builds on scholarship in STS and development studies, and closely collaborates with nanotechnology scientists and engineers.

When concentrating on modern science and technology—e.g. nuclear power, biotechnologies, genetic modification, information and communication technologies, or nanotechnologies—a key aspect is the combination of potential benefits and risks. Often the scientific knowledge to assess these benefits and risks is uncertain, which makes standard forms of decision making inadequate (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993). This project, hence, focuses on nanotechnologies. The first reason for this choice is their all-pervasive and generic character: nanotechnologies promise to be ‘the next big thing’ for the development of rich and poor countries (Invernizzi & Foladori, 2005; Salamanca-Buentello et al., 2005). Nanotechnologies are trivially relevant for the millennium development goal (MDG) of making ‘available the benefits of new technologies’ (8, target 18), but are also expected to contribute to realizing the MDGs on poverty and hunger (1), health (5,6), environmental sustainability (7), and can help develop a global partnership for development (8). The second reason is that nanotechnologies exemplify the quintessential modern technology by promising huge benefits while possibly entailing dangerous risks. These risks comprise direct risks such as the possible but scientifically uncertain toxicity of nanoparticles, and indirect risks such as the lack of progress towards reaching MDGs because of the non-use of nanotechnologies.

Another dimension of this project is a recognition of the need to make decisions related to benefits and risks in a democratic manner. The use of the precautionary principle has been adopted by the UN and the EU as a guideline for democratic and science-based governance in such circumstances of uncertain scientific knowledge, but is still contentious and in need of elaboration and translation into policies (Gezondheidsraad, 2008; Harremoës et al., 2002; Jasanoff, 2000; Stirling, 2002). A committee of the Health Council of the Netherlands, chaired by this project’s PI, formulated an advice on democratic risk governance for nanotechnologies that was adopted by the Government of the Netherlands (Gezondheidsraad, 2006) [2]. This approach is currently also discussed in various European contexts. This project extends this approach to investigate the possibilities for using nanotechnologies for development, while democratically governing the dilemma’s related to its uncertain risks and benefits. The development of a new framework of risk governance that is suited to the developmental needs of Kenya and India (or more generally to countries in the global south) needs to take into account the role of indigenous knowledge and the role of local production and user groups. In other words, the involvement of local stakeholder organisations and manufacturers is necessary. Issues of risk governance can, this project emphasizes, only be addressed adequately when embedded in a wider context of ‘good governance’ in which democratic styles of government are integrated with civil society and private business engagement. Hence, the integrated involvement of private business and civil society groups in the various subprojects of this project.

Our research has focused on India, Kenya, South Africa, and the Netherlands. Together these countries span the spectrum of emerging, developing and developed economies. India comprises a broad range of developmental problems, and it has a highly developed modern research system as well as long traditions of indigenous knowledge and technologies. The same is true for South Africa, yet both its research systems and developmental problems are historically marked by a very different set of priorities. Kenya has a dedicated scientific research programme and has articulated a national vision for nanotechnology development, yet practical efforts at translating these visions have been limited. The Netherlands is a leading country in European discussions on risk governance of advanced technologies, but at the same time can learn from Indian experience with a highly sophisticated and engaged civil society and from Africa’s internationally oriented practice of stakeholder consultations. This project thus conceptualizes ‘development’ and ‘learning’ as applying to all four countries that we focus on.

We focus on specific domains of concern in relation to nanotechnologies, and the associated stakeholders and relevant social groups. This choice has been demand-driven and was decided on the basis of the stakeholder workshop and subsequent meetings with government officials and other stakeholders. New materials (e.g. for water purification), health, and energy are the three domains of nanotechnology development that we focus on. The chosen nanotechnology domains are of relevance for the MDGs.


[1] The phrase “culture of innovation” is used to denote the unit of analysis: the local culture of any place where technology is developed, produced, or adapted—from a laboratory or manufacturing plant to a workshop, farm or hand weaving cooperation. The phrase “innovation of cultures” is used to describe the, often strategically planned, adaptation of cultures—for example to enhance their democratic robustness, innovative potential, or resilience to cope with risks.

[2] Following the Gezondheidsraad advisory report, the Dutch government organized a large public dialogue on the risks and benefits of nanotechnologies (Regering, 2008). The project PI, Wiebe Bijker, accepted an invitation by Prof.dr. Peter Nijkamp to join the Commissie Maatschappelijke Dialoog Nanotechnologie, which was inaugurated by the Minister of Economic Affairs in April 2009.



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Shah, E. (2005). “Local and Global Elite Join Hands: Development and Diffusion of Genetically Modified Bt Cotton Technology in Gujarat.” Economic and Political Weekly.

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Verran, H. (2001). Science and an African logic. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.