Science and technology development have major implications for tackling poverty and promoting well-being in developing countries. Recent controversies, such as genetically modified food crops and AIDS drugs, have created new dimensions and needs for public involvement in decision-making.
Some questions that the Citizenship DRC sought to answer include:
How can citizens get involved in scientific debates and policy processes to address what social purposes they serve?
How can people ensure their concerns are at the heart of scientific decisions, and have faith that the institutions and political powers are making the best choices?
What are their rights?
Who is accountable to whom?
Science and technology is generally associated with highly specialised, professional knowledge and expertise that usually exclude ordinary citizens. This makes it difficult for citizens to participate. But science and technology links local issues with global developments. In a globalising world, poor people's needs and perspectives can be misrepresented and lead to culturally unacceptable technological developments, or missed opportunities in local communities.
Research from: Brazil, Britain, China, India, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe shows many cases where citizens have been active. People have acted based on their own knowledge, while being linked to their own identities and cultures and intertwined with global networks and solidarities. Individuals and groups have questioned experts, demanded evidence and asserted their own knowledge and claims.
Opportunities to do this, however, vary depending on many factors including income, access to education and the extent to which people organise themselves, have good networks and adequate resources:
Activist groups and non-governmental organisations in Mumbai, India, mobilised textile workers to get government regulators and courts of law to recognise and act on their concerns on occupational health issues. Worker unions and groups collected information on occupational health issues which led to a long campaign around lung diseases created by dust emissions.
When 'golden rice', a genetically modified seed which it is claimed would help overcome vitamin A deficiency, was introduced in India, a people's movement raised questions: its impact on the environment, nutritional benefits and the motivations behind the intentions of private companies selling it were serious concerns.
Public involvement with science is usually dominated by narrow technical debates that involve the public only to promote acceptance or deflect controversy over a particular issue. Science and technology debates need to open up participation and deliberation, not close them down.
Policy thinking needs to cover broader questions about how science and technology agendas are framed, the social purposes they serve and who stands to gain or lose.
Participatory approaches that involve citizens in setting research agendas and promote combined local and scientific knowledge are important.
Learning alliances and networks, and linking innovation with delivery systems to meet poor people's needs require investment.
These approaches need to work in combination with citizen action through the media, internet, public protest and challenges through the courts.