Science and innovation as social goods for development: an ethical analysis from the (expanded) capabilities approach.

Mormina, Maru (2018). 'Science and Innovation as Social Goods for Development: An Ethical Analysis from the (expanded) Capabilities Approach.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The ability to generate knowledge and translate it into new products or processes has fuelled human progress since time immemorial. A growing body of scholarship recognises the critical role of Science and Technology (S&T) for economic growth and development. Yet, scientific knowledge, and more importantly, societies’ capacity to produce it, have remained unequally distributed since the industrial revolution. S&T continues to be one of the fault lines that divide developed and developing nations. The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to offer an ethical analysis using the evaluative space of the Capability Approach to draw attention to an issue so far largely neglected by ethicists, S&T scholars, and development theorists alike: the ‘just’ global distribution of scientific progress.

Despite lofty aspirations to “enhance scientific research and upgrade the technological capabilities” of developing countries (as stated in the Sustainable Development Goals), concrete efforts to empower developing countries to become primary innovators and producers of knowledge, rather than consumers of it, have been inconsistent.  A possible reason for this may be the lack of strong justice claims regarding the moral value of scientific knowledge for the development and economic growth of low-income societies. Indeed, most liberal theories of justice do not recognise scientific knowledge as a unit of distribution, perhaps due to their dominant concern for the individual as the sole subject of distributive justice. This is blind to goods that cannot be distributed to single individuals but to society as a whole. Scientific knowledge is one such good and therefore we need to move the focus of moral concern if we want to direct the spotlight towards questions of justice in its distribution. 

This paper attempts to articulate how scientific knowledge and the capacity to produce it become morally relevant for global justice. And, in light of such relevance, it seeks to outline the economic and political arrangements that are necessary to stimulate processes of knowledge production in low income societies. To do so, it will begin by showing how the capacity for scientific innovation, rather than the consumption of technologies, is important for economic growth and development. Such capacity depends on the existence of processes of knowledge creation that generate a critical mass of expertise, currently absent or underdeveloped in poor countries.  The paper will then discuss scientific knowledge (and knowledge creation processes) as a metric of distribution within the evaluative space of Sen’s Capability Approach (CA). Scientific knowledge cannot be construed as a good in the traditional Senian view (a feature of and valuable to individuals) and for this reason has not been typically considered a metric of distribution. Instead, it should be understood as a social good, an irreducible feature of and valuable to society. Scientific knowledge critically depends on and emerges from a collective framework (codes, institutional norms and practices). It is not directly valuable to individuals but expands society’s opportunities for developing processes and applications (e.g. vaccines, medicines, technologies) necessary for advancing individual wellbeing. For this reason, it represents a “social capability” which needs to be evaluated beyond the level of the individual. Any claim to social/collective capabilities needs to resolve the tension between social goods and individual freedoms (e.g. the capability to produce scientific knowledge could be used in ways that advance the wellbeing of certain individuals/groups over others) and the paper attempts to reconcile this tension by drawing a distinction between scientific (not applied, general) and technological (applied, specific) knowledge,  By moving beyond the moral individualism of the CA and broadening it to include “social capabilities” (capabilities that emerge from and depend on the structures of social relationships and which constitute the very condition for individual flourishing), it is possible to posit scientific knowledge as a currency of justice. This broadens the scope of justice opening up an entitlement to research capacity strengthening.

The paper will conclude by briefly examining the implications of this entitlement. It will seek to outline how societies’ claim to a capability for scientific knowledge can be operationalised in research capacity strengthening (RCS) initiatives.  It will argue that the current model of RCS does not help LMIC become producers of scientific knowledge, in part because of a narrow focus on nurturing individual capabilities (such as training of researchers) ignoring the environment in which individuals work and live.  If scientific knowledge is a social good that enhances society’s capability to pursue their own development goals, strengthening knowledge creation processes requires a reconceptualization of RCS as a multilevel approach to strengthen research systems, and the societies in which they are embedded. 

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