Technology Transfer Research Paper

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The concept of technology transfer (hereafter, transfer of technology or TOT) has diverse roots: in myth, in the nineteenth century preoccupation with the diffusion of technological artifacts, and in the economics of knowledge. The Promethean act of stealing fire from the gods could be considered a creation myth of technology transfer. Lynn White’s classic essay on the origin and diffusion of the stirrup is paradigmatic of the studies on the diffusion of technological artifacts (1962). But TOT as an everyday concept could only come into being with the idea of what Whitehead dubbed the ‘invention of invention.’ In Science and the Modern World, he observed, ‘to understand the modern epoch, we can neglect railways, telegraph, radios, spinning machines and synthetic dyes. We must concentrate on the method itself’ (1938, p. 118). Whitehead insisted that ‘scientific knowledge is not an abundant storehouse from which one readily helped oneself. An intense period of imaginative design lies between them. One element in the new method is how to go about bridging the gap between a scientific idea and its ultimate product’ (1938, p. 18).

The idea of the transfer of technology reflects at once a model of governance, a civics we may say, and a paradigm for the interaction between science and technology (S&T). Also present in this concept is a recognition that science and technology operated as parallel streams throughout most of history. If anything connected them, it was the use of scientific instruments. Till the nineteenth century, science was not a systematic part of the productive process. Economic historians now agree that science played little role in the industrial revolution, which was more the work of craftsman inventors who had little systematic education in science or technology. The concept of technology transfer recognizes the problematic relation between S&T and seeks to increase the reciprocity and frequency of the interaction.

In its most rudimentary form, the TOT concept is founded on the idea of the innovation chain as a sequence of the three stages of invention, innovation, and diffusion, which are non-monotonic. Invention represents the conceptualization of a scientific idea conventionally in a laboratory and its concretization in a sample or prototype. Innovation represents the scaling up of the product or process for commercialization, and diffusion is the wider extension of the product in society. Innovation chains represent the lifecycle of a scientific idea within the technological and commercial domain. The nature of the schema disguises certain ideological and cultural biases. First, it assumes that science and technology axiomatically have separate spheres of operation, which the creativity and purity of science requires. Institutionally, science was seen as operative in laboratories and universities; technology in factories and engineering studios. The innovation chain was a linear sequence proceeding from pure science to applied science to development and production. TOT was conceived as following the same linear pathway.

Second, the schema is associated with a set of conceptual separations that tended to reinforce a ritual and institutional separation among the three stages. The relation between pure science, applied science, and development provided the stuff of science policy in the USA for years. If one seminal book embodied this model, it was Vannevar Bush’s Science, The Last Frontier, which provided the paradigmatic formulation for the science policy of the Cold War years (1945). Bush’s work was representative of the time and reflected the era’s static understanding of the categories of research. Bush argued that basic research is the engine of technological progress and that it must be separated from applied research because applied research invariably drives out the pure.

Third, present in Bush’s writings was not only an understanding of the dynamics of science but of nation building. Bush argued that nations which depend on others for their pure science would lose their competitive edge in world trade. The TOT model thus embodied the ideological assumptions of a particular subculture of science which equated invention with basic science and superiority in basic science with supremacy in world politics (see Stokes 1997). This subculture was challenged both by the Japanese successes in competing with America in the 1980s and by a newly revisionist history which saw S&T as a more interactive field, in which scientists like Maxwell, Pasteur, and others derived their pure science questions from industrial and agricultural problems. The linearity was also challenged by the development of the new materials sciences which posited and institutionalized a reciprocal relation between science and technology (see Roy 1970). But there were also ideological reasons for the collapse of the conventional paradigm. If the quarrel of the categories constituted the stuff of the science policy discourse in the Anglo-Saxon postwar world, the challenges to technology transfer models came from a different array of positions in the Third World.

1. Critical Discourses

The debates on technology transfer resonated with the wider debates on development. As development produced discursive epicycles of equal development, community development, participative development and sustainable development, technology transfer too produced a spate of critical discourses centering on intermediate technology, alternative technology, and alternative science. These responses were not merely driven by academic critiques but evolved as philosophies of grassroots movements.

Present in all these approaches was a geography of power. The innocent horizontality of TOT was now read across the center-periphery axis. The political economy of technology transfer saw the basic choices of S&T as emerging from the metropolis. The periphery was regarded not as a source of independent innovation but only as a recipient of it. The idea of TOT was embedded in the policy of import substitution; industrialization was seen as a passive civics that pulled its subjects into forms of governance over which they did not have active control.

The recognition of intellectual and economic inequality underlying TOT produced spectrum of responses. From Latin America came the work of the centre-periphery theorists who argued through LAFTA and UNCTAD for better terms of trade. Here technology was absorbed in the wider discourse of political economy. Inspired by his work in Burma, E. F. Schumacher articulated the idea of intermediate technology (1973). The Vietnam War, the energy crisis and the peace movement produced a search for softenergy paths captured in the idea of appropriate or alternative technology (see Lovins and Price 1975). All these critiques continued to see science as universal knowledge but felt that technology was local and adaptable. They believed that local knowledges, ethnosciences, could be brought into play to produce a more local and creative technology less discordant with culture. A fourth approach, however, sought to challenge the epistemological hegemony of science, seeking an alternative basis for science through critiques of Judeo–Christian cosmology and the ethnocentrism of modern science. The Indian chemist C. V. Seshadri argued that if the notions of efficiency implicit in the laws of thermodynamics were applied to Third World societies operating at ambient temperatures, such decisions would work against tribals in the Third World, or peasants opting for indigenous or traditional agricultural practices (Seshadri 1993). The idea of intermediate technology and the emphasis on local knowledges was gradually adopted in World Bank models of technology transfer. The epistemic critique however faced a more ambiguous fate and was subjected to benign neglect.

All the above critiques tried to modify TOT as an antiseptic managerially limited discourse and to relocate it within the wider politics of knowledge and production. They reworked technology within an ethical worldview, arguing that the transfer of technology was also a transfer of values (see George 1984, pp. 75–6). Ivan Illich’s work on education, medicine, and energy was a critique of the basic professionalism implicit in the TOT model (1992). He saw it as a disabling, iatrogenic programme, a cultural code for disempowerment.

The effervescence of these critical movements dimmed by the 1990s, though they continue to inspire the struggle against large dams, the critique of forestry, and the logic of urban planning in Third World countries. Intermediate technology in its heyday produced a flowering of locally sensitive technologies such as biogas and modified kitchen stoves, and also revived traditional technologies for housing (see Warren et. al. 1995). As dissenting imaginations, they were powerful, but their critical edge was blunted or absorbed by the UN sponsored idea of sustainable development. Sustainable development gave the TOT model a new lease on life by offering the possibility of a balance between ecology and development, renewability and productivity, the long run and the short run.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Science and Technology Studies (STS) had advanced beyond marginality to produce a more variegated set of discourses. The resurgence of the economics of scientific knowledge revitalized studies of the R&D system. Till the 1960s, economists thought that knowledge, like waste, was something external to the production system. Knowledge was not treated as a factor of production like land, labor, or capital. The work of Jewkes et al. (1958), Rosenberg (1976), Freeman (1974), and Machlup (1962) had a far-reaching impact in visualizing technology transfer as a policy discipline. They provided systematic studies exploring the relation between R&D expenditure and rates of productivity. They emphasized the systematic role of patents in evaluating the productivity of such systems and introduced methodologies of cost-benefit analysis to audit TOT processes. In all, they provided a finegrained set of analytical constructs and empirical studies that helped professionalize science policy as a discipline. They also emphasized that the rationality of the firm was altered by the military-industrial complex.

2. Transfer Of Military Technology

The conceptual world of technology transfer still operated at a split-level with a tendency to dichotomize civilian and military transfers of knowledge. One link between the two was the concept of ‘spin-off,’ the idea that investments in military research eventually had civilian potential and therefore legitimized the former. The other was the idea of conversion which suggested the transformation of swords into ploughshares, a notion which became popular after the Cold War. One of the finest critiques of military innovation chains was Mary Kaldor’s Baroque Arsenal (1982). Kaldor argued that while military technology was once innovative, it had become decadent or baroque after World War II. She traced the baroquization of military technology to the interaction between ‘the capitalist dynamic of arms manufacturers and the conservatism that characterizes armed forces and defence departments in peace time’ (Kaldor 1982, p. 4). Baroquization is a consequence of the paradoxical dynamic between, on the one hand, armies which cling to designs from the previous war and, on the other, the competition to stay in business and win contracts that demands incessant technological effort.

The consequence is an involuted technology of perpetual improvements within a conservative framework. What we face is a narrowing of options, greater uniformity, and diminishing returns. More and more money is expended on small improvements ultimately to obtain military hardware which is difficult to maintain. Cost factors increase to such an extent that by 2020, Kaldor suggests, the defence department might be able to afford one plane. Built into such technology as well is planned obsolescence. What was created by Alfred Sloan of General Motors for the car becomes a part of weapons systems. The useful life of a weapon is much shorter than its physical life because of the inexorable power of obsolescence. The emphasis is more on luxuries, accessories, and minor improvements.

Kaldor warned that such military technology when transferred is dangerous both for industrialized and industrializing countries. She argued that the idea of ‘Atlanticism’ is not just a set of treaties, but a shared technological paradigm posited on a bipolar confrontation between Western and the (then) Eastern totalitarian systems (see Kaldor 1987, p. 143). She showed how the security concerns of the UK, France, and Germany make them replicate the baroque technologies of the USA, resulting in similar cost overruns and duplication. Worse, alternative forms of defence, including Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) which implied decentralized and dispersed military organizations, could not be developed.

The impact of arms transfers is predictable in developing countries, as illustrated for instance in the regime of the Shah of Iran. The high incidence of arms transfers impairs the capacity to import what is needed for development and industrialization. Once a weapon system has been imported, a chain of supplementary imports is induced. Modern fighter aircraft, tanks, and naval units require an extensive network of support facilities including spare parts and presence of foreign experts. ‘The installation of sophisticated military infrastructure is also suboptimal for the development process and often negative for existing traditional infrastructures. Simply put the stability of triage or a road for a tank has to be much higher than for a bullock cart’ (Locke and Wulf 1984, p. 114). The chain of demands appears endless. This pervasive logic of military technology independently suggests that Third World nations can arrive at a self-reliant position in military technology only if they abstain from imitating the military paradigms—both doctrines and weapons systems—developed in the context of the confrontation between industrialized nations. In this context, the Vietnam War was a model confrontation between two modes of technology transfer. Unfortunately the debate did not sustain itself into the new millennium.

Technology transfer as a discourse made incremental responses to new problems. It responded gradually to issues of obsolescence, pollution, proliferation, risk, spin-off on separate grids, while also keeping civilian and military processes on separate registers. There was a need to link concepts such as obsolescence and proliferation. If obsolescence raised problems of value and time in TOT models, proliferation emphasized the question of excess. Military technology represents the classic case, but all too often military technology transfer is restricted to a limited scenario with the legitimate nation-state as actor, without realizing that the smuggler, the mercenary, and eventually even ‘rogue states’ may be the agents of proliferation or illegitimate transfer.

Proliferation is officially impermissible diffusion. It is a cancerous threat to the ordered chaos of diffusion. As good civics, diffusion reinforces the system of innovation. Nuclear proliferation, however, threatens it, demanding a network of laws, treaties, alliances to restrict its flow. One is simultaneously caught in the debate between atoms for peace and atoms for war, unless one agreed with Robert Jungk (1976) that the distinction was a spurious one, difficult to maintain empirically. The question of proliferation was handled at two levels—technologically as well as legally and politically. Technological measures attempted to control latent proliferation through interventions in the nuclear fuel cycle. Scientists have proposed that proliferation resistance become a design criterion for nuclear energy systems through such techniques as isotopic denaturing. There was, however, a realization that such technical measures needed to be complemented with the political. Within the political domain, proliferation was met by two general strategies. First was the universalist argument in which, through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other legal measures, a full framework of integrated treaties worked for the elimination of nuclear regimes. The other, more restricted effort seeks to argue that a controlled spread of nuclear energy alters the behaviour of adopting states, adding a dose of restraint and confidence to their behaviour.

3. TOT And The Risks Of Development

Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, the TOT discourse operated between the axes of disarmament and development. It took four decades of development for experts to realize that development, the chief objective of TOT, might produce more refugees than war. India by some counts has over 40 million refugees from development projects; in fact it arguably has more refugees from development than from the wars it has fought after independence. Not unnaturally, some grassroots groups considered TOT as a continuation of war by other means (see for instance, Visvanathan 1997, p. 41).

The accidents at Windscale, Chernobyl and Bhopal introduced into the public sphere of TOT discourse the concept of risk and the more comprehensive idea of the risk society (Beck 1992). The 1984 gas leak at Bhopal, India, the world’s biggest industrial disaster, proved that international transfers of technology needed to be located within a wider ethics of responsibility than mere compensation. One needed not only a more systematic right to information and disclosure but also ideas of justice and rehabilitation beyond monetary compensation. The issues of pollution and the proliferation of hazardous waste facilities introduced into the TOT domain new and enlightened legal ideas, including the polluter pays principle. Actors within the legal system realized that as technology moves from certainty to uncertainty, and even to risk, one has to redefine both the rationality of technology and the notion of responsibility. With the rise of environmentalism, risk assessment became a significant element of the TOT discourse. It also brought to the forefront the latent public aversion to science, as enacted in citizens protests. One had to ask whether citizens’ worries about environmental hazards from carcinogenic pesticides, nuclear wastes, loss of global ozone was grounded, and then to develop methodologies for resolving such controversy. The work of Douglas and Wildavsky (1982), Brian Wynne (1987), Kristin Shrader-Frechette (1991) were all attempts in that direction, but with different sensitivities to the requirements of science and the demands of democracy.

The question of risk also prompted inquiry into the rationality behind technology. Ulrich Beck (1992) went so far as to institutionalize the problem. Beck argued that in advanced industrial society the social production of wealth is accompanied by the social production of risks. He claimed one needed a new concept of a risk society with which one not only acknowledged that modernization produces risks, but one also systematically and openly sought to answer how risks could be ‘prevented, minimized, dramatized and extended’ (Beck 1992, p. 21). The notion of the risk society led to a range of debates in the social sciences, raising interesting questions about the role of experts in technology transfer, the question of trust in science, and the construction of scientific knowledge itself.

Meanwhile a revisionist history of the Green Revolution was altering the perception of one of the paradigmatic successes of the technology transfer discourse. The Green Revolution, a project which involved the transfer of hybrid, fertilizer-sensitive seeds to India, Pakistan, and other developing countries, was originally seen as a benign example of successful TOT which saved these countries from starvation and made India self-sufficient in food. Norman Borlaug, one of pioneers of the Green Revolution, received the Nobel Prize for peace. Robert Anderson challenged the received wisdom of the Green Revolution by arguing that it involved not merely high yielding packages of seed, pesticides and fertilizer but also incorporated social ideas of changing agricultural society. ‘The broad economic links between modernized agricultural production and US economic interests were crucial elements in the strategy from the beginning’ (Anderson et. al. 1991, p. 361). Francesca Bray, arguing from a different perspective, showed that Green Revolution concentrated on only a few crops, ‘wheat, and rice for human consumption, corn and soybean for animal feed and cotton for industry’ (Bray 1994, p. 30). The capital-intensive, highly mechanized model hastened soil erosion and environmental degradation. Bray and later Vandana Shiva (1992) particularly attacked the monocultural mindset behind such transfer of technology, which ignored the productivity and sustainability of polycultural systems, which not only used several varieties of crop but had several uses for various parts of the crop. Such crops were also resistant to pests. It was the impoverishment of gestalts that constitutes the most devastating aspect of the critique of the Green Revolution as TOT.

4. TOT And Biotechnology

But narratives change and so do battle sites. By 1990, even its pioneers recognized the Green Revolution as a dated narrative. The productivity levels of wheat and rice had levelled off and the scene shifted to biotechnology as the site for the second Green Revolution. While critiques of the Green Revolution came after the event, the movements against biotechnology were spawned almost simultaneously.

The question of the transfer of biotechnology raises fundamental questions for the innovation process in the Third World countries. Pat Mooney (1983, 1998) documents how many crops developed by farmers over centuries became the property of a multinational at the stroke of a pen. Patenting, which was seen as a legal frame for recognizing original innovation, became a technique for appropriating the legacy of innovation in agricultural societies. Important controversies in the 1990s centred around neem and basmati rice. The growing opposition to chemical products led to a search for natural pesticides and to the neem. By 1985, US and Japanese firms had taken out a dozen patents on neem pesticides and neem toothpaste. The question one has to ask is whether neem patents constitute novel forms of knowledge or are such forms of novelty only based on the ignorance of a 2000-year-old tradition of biopesticides in India?

The controversy over basmati rice raised similar issues. In 1997, a patent was granted to Ricetech, Inc., a US company, on basmati lines and grains. The basmati variety was derived from the Indian basmati and crossed with semi-dwarf varieties. The question is whether Ricetech basmati is the Indian basmati and novel at the same time. If basmati patents were recognized in India, Indian farmers would ironically be forced to pay royalties to Ricetech.

A patent does not recognize the prior custody of farmers over their seeds. There is no recognition of prior art. Culturally, the patent defines agriculture as an activity performed in a laboratory rather than on a farm. It is a derecognition of an entire intellectual commons. The juridical framework of GATT and TRIPS has possibilities of becoming a new enclosure movement—comparable in spirit to the actions of fifteenth century British landowners—which turns a farmer who saves and replants the seed of patented or protected plant into a violator of the law.

There was a second, equally fundamental problem. Hybridization disables the seed from reproducing itself and forces the farmer to return to the breeder for further stock. Farmers who were custodians of the seed now were systematically deskilled both by technology and law. Finally, there is the ethical question of whether life forms can be patented at all as many of these communities locate the seed within the domain of the commons and the gift.

4.1 TOT And Information Technology

If biotechnology appears as a dismal science for the TOT process, information technology, as a narrative, was more celebratory. The rise of technologically innovative groups in Silicon Valley, California, created a new paradigm for industrialism outstripping in its impact Boston’s legendary Route 128 (Castells 1996). Silicon Valley created a false belief that distance and location did not matter in the transfer of technology. Over the last decade, governments in India, China, Malaysia have pursued the holy grail of reinventing Silicon Valleys in their countries. Information technology and the legend of the innovative successes of Bill Gates and Sabir Bhatia, of Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Intel created a myth that innovation chains could reproduce themselves anywhere. As Manuel Castells remarked:

The development of the information technology revolution contributed to the formation of the milieux of innovation where discoveries and applications would interact, and be tested, in a recurrent process of trial and error, of learning by doing; these milieus required (and still do in the 1990s, in spite of on-line networking) spatial concentrations of research centres, higher education institutions, advanced technology companies, a network of ancillary supplies of goods and services, and business networks of venture capital to finance start-ups. (Castells quoted in Mcgray 1999, p. 153)

Information Technology is symptomatic of the cornucopian myths present in TOT. At its most reductive level, technology transfer is a methodology of hope combining the powers of science and technology. It appears as a discourse on management but, as it unravels, its reaches beyond management to the complexities of law, political economy, ethics and anthropology. What begins as a science policy issue transforms itself into a multidisciplinary exercise. Technology transfer is one of the great myths of the twentieth century, a belief that science and technology, if naturally diffused, can fulfil any democratic dream. It is the task of science and technology studies to show the lags, the gaps, the ironies that sustain the myth. What one needs to chronicle is these very lags, gaps, worries and possibilities as the myth of TOT acts itself out in the form of policy.


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