WASHINGTON -- Those who develop technology must becomesensitive to how their inventions influence equity and socialjustice. This was Congressman George Brown's message to about350 scientists, technologists and policy makers at a luncheonsponsored by the American Association for the Advancementof Science on Friday.
Brown, a California democrat who has spent three decades onCapitol Hill, takes a very strong interest in biotechnology fromhis position as ranking majority member of the HouseAgriculture Committee. As hairman of the Committee onScience, Space and Technology, Brown influences the budget ofthe National Science Foundation.
"Technological development has become a shibboleth amongpoliticians, an incantation that promises a bevy of goodconsequences," Brown said. Unfortunately, "the market-drivenapproach can displace more equitable, cheaper, non-technological solutions."
Brown cited medical technology that saves premature infantswith underdeveloped lungs as an example of a technology thatpromotes inequity because only people with expensive healthplans are able to afford it, while better preventive prenatalcare could mitigate the problem inexpensively and equitably.
As for biotechnology, he said, "I perceive some of the sameproblems." He criticized "objections to research in biotechnologythat stem from mystical grounds" (no doubt alluding obliquelyto the followers of Jeremy Rifkin). But, he said, "to the degreethat new biotechnologies are much more expensive than oldertechnologies, they distort economic equity, the classic examplebeing BST (bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone).
"Small dairies cannot afford BST; big dairies can," he said. "I'mconcerned about that problem as an example of a broaderimpact of technology on social and economic equity, notbecause I'm opposed to BST. As far as I can tell, it meets allstandards for benevolent technology except for social equity."
In his speech, Brown was not condemning the market, butacknowledging its imperfections. But rather than trying toperfect the imperfectable, "which is like saying we need tochange the second law so that it conforms more closely toperpetual motion, we might ask what kinds technologies wouldreduce inequality."
As an example, he said, information technologies such as faxand copying machines, which had been suppressed in the oldSoviet Union, ultimately contributed to the development of afreer society, he said.
"Many of you may wonder how someone 30 years in politicscan take such utopian rambling seriously, let alone espouse itin public," he said. After the cynical policies of the Cold Warera, which included "providing high-tech weapons todictatorships ... we need a new and better vision."
Policies of the Clinton administration, such as "to fully fundHead Start, summer jobs and vacancies," made Brown"modestly hopeful" for his vision. But he is "not convinced thatwithin the administration are the very wise men who see theneed to go far deeper."
Brown placed the biggest responsibility for his vision onindividuals, saying that he hopes that institutions could bedeveloped to evaluate research spending in terms of equity.But "I am highly skeptical of the institutions. They are not asubstitute for a growing awareness by human beings of whatneeds to be done."
Carl Feldbaum, the new president of the newly mergedBiotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said, "I happen toagree with him generally, that in any emerging technology youreally do want to look at the social consequences and minimizeor eliminate adverse social impacts wherever possible.
-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.