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Science for Southeast Asia:
A New Human Contract

Stephen Hill
Director and Representative, UNESCO Jakarta Office
Regional Office for Science and Technology for Southeast Asia

'Scientists must listen to what communities want, rather than deliver the results of research conceived at a distance'

Most people seem to have been caught by surprise when the floating of the Thai currency in 1997 precipitated an avalanche of market distrust in the burgeoning 'tiger' economies of Southeast Asia. Science -- a fragile flower in many Southeast Asian nations that was just reaching a maturity where international quality and impact could be seen in key institutions -- has subsequently found itself subject to devalued currencies and sudden fiscal restraint.

International travel for scientists, for example, became difficult when the local currency dropped by a factor of between two and seven. In the case of Indonesia, even the cost of imported reagents for research became unbearable for some key laboratories.

Some countries, in particular the Republic of Korea, took the opportunity to radically restructure their scientific infrastructure. Others, such as Indonesia, have been forced into giant steps backwards, whilst having to address critical new issues that have emerged with the sudden shift in life expectations of its people.

For example, Indonesia moved from a policy favouring high technology enterprise, such as that of its national aircraft industry, to one that is now seeking to provide small scale appropriate technologies for the rural poor.

Science and technology policies throughout Southeast Asia are now confronting the need for a major revision to meet the new times. This shock to the scientific system is clearly visible. Less visible is a series of background changes in science at the global level over the last thirty years that has set a new context for science policies in the coming century, and has particular bearing on how Southeast Asia handles its recovery.

The main changes in global science have been in the internal dynamics by which scientific knowledge is constituted and valued, and in the external relationship between scientific knowledge and society.

Internally, science has changed towards what Michael Gibbons and colleagues have called a 'Mode 2' organization. The production of knowledge increasingly takes place in the context of its potential application, research fields are driven by multidisciplinary issues rather than by disciplines, and personal contacts are critical in transferring the informal tacit knowledge that, in addition to formalised knowledge, is required to tackle complex multidisciplinary problems.

Externally, changes in the use of science over the last thirty years have eroded public confidence. Science, perceived in the 1960s primarily as producing knowledge for the public good, is now seen on both sides of adversarial disputes. The notion of the unchallengeable expert has collapsed. At worst science is for sale, supporting the views of those who can afford it; at best, the community is confused and unable to trust in scientific truth. Either way, the scientific community is no longer automatically trusted to take public funds and do good work.

When these three forces -- crisis, change in dynamic and in external trust -- come together in their impact on Asian science, we must see policy for the future not in terms of the fiscally restricted pursuit of old models, but as a radical revision in the 'social contract' between science and society.

In Asia, as elsewhere, we confront a future populated not only with immediate economic need and inadequate employment, but with global warming, environmental degradation, overpopulation, and an increasingly homogenised and globalised culture. We also confront a loss of faith amongst the people - with the attendant loss of political will to fund research, and the need for a more interactive model of the way that science can be made to work.

The new social contract is one that addresses these conflicts, rather than pretends that we live in a halcyon past, and that a 'science-first' centred model of knowledge works intrinsically for people's welfare.

With the re-institution of a relationship of trust and relevance at its heart, this new contract is a New Human Contract, focused on building a vision that emphasizes equity for current and future generations, prioritises the issues that people are most concerned about, and breaks down the walls of accountability and access that surround scientific enterprise.

UNESCO in Southeast Asia is developing activities that apply this model. In bringing together science with social science, as well as with education, culture and communication, UNESCO can bring social and cultural connectedness to programmes in its science sector. The New Human Contract requires planning with people, rather than for them.

To give one example, our chemistry and botany programmes throughout Asia focus on the use of natural products for aromatic spices and medical and pharmaceutical applications. The region's best and most committed scientists are helping to tap both traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge, and to put them together.

Not only is this comparative knowledge published openly, but through public forums in the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, both legal and informal normative instruments have also been developed to help control exploitative 'bioprospectors' and 'biopirates'. Science is balanced against community knowledge, and the rights of traditional peoples are strengthened.

A second example is our work with the village people around Jakarta Bay, Indonesia, focusing on introducing waste recycling for profit, a community programme that originated with the need for action that had been demonstrated by 10 years of monitoring the impact of Jakarta on coral reefs in the bay.

Producing and marketing compost reduced organic waste in traditional markets by 30 per cent; paper recycling by children is producing decorative paperware and boxes that now sell internationally; and new duck farming practices, based on organic waste as a food source, have been spreading between villages.

Science stimulated this programme and is deeply embedded in defining social needs and technical solutions. The community is calling the shots. A third example involved hydrology. In the tribal highlands of Irian Jaya, UNESCO, with extra-budgetary funding, brought clean water to the people last year during a period of drought.

Although this was a hydrology programme, it was only possible because of UNESCO's prior work with the communities of the Baliem Valley. Activities included building a culture workshop and marketing cultural artifacts; developing study tours for tribal leaders into the outside world; and in building an understanding between the tribes and UNESCO. The location of the pumps and water systems, for example, depended on the cultural knowledge necessary to avoid subsequent contest and tribal war.

At an early stage in the project, UNESCO sought to build trust by responding, with the help of extrabudgetary funding, to the need to airlift 108 pigs into the valley. The village pigs had been killed in the course of fighting when a group of foreign and Indonesian hostages had been captured by the Irian Jaya rebel movement.

With this loss, the social capital of the people was destroyed, as pigs are the core element in bride-price exchanges, tribal war reparation and social status. As with the Jakarta Bay project, this programme is listening to the people, bringing science together with social science and cultural knowledge.

The idea of a New Human Contract between science and society is central to the lessons that are being from the Asian region, through the Regional Science Conference held in Sydney in December 1998, to the World Science Conference (see the Sydney Communique)

Scientists must listen to what communities want, and engage research in the life and development issues that communities confront, rather than deliver the results of research conceived at a distance or within the closed realm of commercial interest. Trust -- and perhaps a renewed invigoration in public funding -- are likely to follow.

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