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Science, Maths & Technology

The last of a disappointing series

Updated Wednesday 4th May 2005

Too late in his run, Lord Broer's final Reith Lecture recognises that not all technological progress is positive, says Tom Hewitt.

The final lecture in a disappointing series. And suddenly we hear Lord Broers in a less gung-ho frame of mind about technology. This was a welcome antidote to the undiluted optimism – triumphalism – of the previous lectures.

Taking up a more critical and reflective position on technology is surely what we have been waiting for over the last five weeks.

Gridlocked traffic on the A1 in the Netherland [Image: Chriszwolle under CC-BY-NC licence] Creative commons image Icon Chriszwolle via Flickr under Creative-Commons license

Broers hits upon some of the key issues and bottlenecks that his profession faces. To mention a few:

  • public engagement in science and technology is important, not so that any old technology will get public approval but so that we the public understand technologies better and that engineers (and managers) become more responsive to real concerns about technological ‘progress’;
  • the nonsense that is road, rail and air travel where decades of political cowardice in the UK have produced gridlock, high costs, and pollution of most varieties;
  • the public understanding of risk where better understanding will reduce the impact of minorities at the extremes both positive and negative;
  • how to move from a culture of blame to the seeking of causes when things go wrong. This last is perhaps the toughest one to crack, at least in the UK. Accountability and blame are different things and the latter leads to lies and cover-ups.

Where I disagree with Broers is in the lip service paid to other parts of the world. Portraying the ‘majority of the world’s population’ as living with ‘endemic poverty, disease and desperation’ is a stereotype that only the most crass of cub reporters should fall for.

With such a view, engineers can parachute in to sort out helpless victims with their technological solutions. At best, technolgy is only one part of any such solution.

More important, the world just does not work like this, as some 50 chequered years of international technical assistance programmes have demonstrated. But, to his credit, Broers did try to sort this thorny issue out in only 100 words.

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