The knowledge divide as a challenge to sustainable development

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By Marian Ewurama Addy


Sustainable Development has been defined by many people and organizations but all the definitions underscore improved quality of life (development) for the current generation and all subsequent generations (sustainability). It is human to provide the current generation, which we know, with progressively better quality of life, irrespective of the effects of processes that are necessary for this provisioning, and not to provide for the future generation which we do not know. But, with scientific knowledge which enables us to predict, we ought to do more to ensure the same quality of life for the future generation. This pre-supposes that without this knowledge we are less able to take care of the future and therefore subsequent generations.

The knowledge divide is a phrase we use to indicate that a section of the world’s people has an abundance of this knowledge, while the other section has less of it. We have also come to realize that the gap between those with the knowledge and those without keeps increasing. Why is the divide a challenge to sustainable development? In spite of the predictive value of this knowledge, its very nature, how it is used, how and where it is produced or acquired, the risks and uncertainties associated with its use and the fact that there are limitations to the use of its products are all factors that could derail the train on track to sustainable development.
In sections of the world where this knowledge is abundant, the products of the knowledge improve the quality of life but many of the processes used to obtain the products are not sustainable. Governance and utilization of the knowledge by those who may be considered peripheral to its creation, ie, government and industry, could present problems because of political and economic power associated with development. In the section of the world where scientific knowledge is less available, ignorance of it and that of the way to package and make their own knowledge systems available to the world, could also lead to no development or development which is not sustainable. Human attitudes and values must also change for sustainable development to take place and these derive from local knowledge systems which may be regarded as indigenous.
In order to overcome these challenges the scientific community, together with those who hold power, whether political or economic, must prosecute an agenda for true universality of science, taking the world’s varied social and other knowledge systems into account. These systems can, and do contribute to, and are influenced by scientific knowledge. We can also emphasize social responsibility when building capacity in science, especially in future generations. By so doing, all forms of knowledge would be systematized and shared by all with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of life for all people and at all ages.
That there is a knowledge divide is well known. The knowledge under reference is scientific knowledge and the causes for the divide are also well known. Scientific knowledge is necessary for sustainable development in all corners of the earth. It is possible that if we examine critically the reasons why the gap in this knowledge between those who have an abundance of it and those who have very little of it keeps on increasing we may be able to overcome the challenges to sustainable development. This presentation draws from the ICSU Strategic Review of Science and Society: Rights and Responsibilities, one outcome of which was to define how ICSU could “best maintain and develop its traditional contributions to the ethics of scientific practice and universality”. In the report various dimensions of change were proposed within a framework for considering science and society issues. They included changes in the flow of science and scientists, the production of the scientific knowledge, unavoidable risks and uncertainties associated with it and the governance of the scientific knowledge and its products. The knowledge divide as a challenge to sustainable development is a science and society issue which could be discussed within this framework.
Every community or society has knowledge, indigenous knowledge. From such a point of view there should not be a knowledge divide. The knowledge divide stems from the kind of knowledge required for sustainable development. Such knowledge must be universally applicable, useable, be capable of predicting the future so that man can plan for it, and it must give rise to products which will improve the quality of life of the people. This knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge system that provides one avenue for interpretation of natural phenomena and the development of technologies. Its methodology is open to all for verification and this is what sets it apart from other knowledge systems.
Sometimes there is confusion or misunderstanding between usable indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge. But as stated by Henri Poincare, Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house. In spite of the abundant store of knowledge from the study, observation and accumulation of empirical data in most indigenous systems, the knowledge system could not be called science. The creation or acquisition of scientific knowledge starts with empirical knowledge which every society has. One definition of empirical is “capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment, especially in the natural sciences”. Therefore, conversion of empirical knowledge into scientific knowledge requires verification, implying that scientific knowledge can be created from a range of knowledge systems. If so, why the knowledge divide? It has to do with where the scientific knowledge creation started; the part of the world referred to as The North, with a smaller number of the world’s people. Comparatively little of such creativity happens in the developing world which has a larger number of the world’s people. Therefore, people do move to The North from the Majority World.
The scientific knowledge system is such that as people acquire more of it, the expectation is that they would know more about the world around them and are liable to make more rational decisions about life and the processes of development and governance. This happens. However, there is also the predictive value of science which enables man to know about the future before he gets there. Unfortunately, this knowledge is not always used in making rational decisions about the future. Man tends to ignore some of the predictions which come out of scientific knowledge, most probably because of man’s tendency towards a felt need for a constant improvement of the quality of life for the present which confronts him.
The consequences of the nature of scientific knowledge, where it is created and the use to which its products are put, appearing to benefit a smaller number of the world’s people has resulted in the flow of science and scientists from the majority world in The South to The North. With the mobility of high level manpower from the areas of low concentration to the areas of high concentration of scientific knowledge creation, there is even less or no creation of scientific knowledge from the empirical knowledge of the majority world. This situation is bound to have negative consequences. The following paragraph culled from the ICSU Strategic Review Science and Society: Rights and Responsibility is relevant as well as instructive:
Accordingly, science is less pluralistic in practice than it could be in principle. The lack of equitable representation has serious negative implications not only for society but also, through systematic under-inclusion of some perspectives, for the range and quality of the research that is produced. Many brilliant minds currently have no opportunity to contribute to science. “
Sustainable development means constant improvement in the quality of life for the current generation and the same or better quality of life for subsequent generations, all from the same sources of the earth. The knowledge needed for this type of development must come from all regions and all knowledge systems must have predictive value because of the need to satisfy the future generations. It is assumed that this knowledge comes from scientific knowledge from The North. With this assumption, the tendency is for those in The South not only to depend on those in The North for the knowledge for sustainable development but also to desist from creating scientific knowledge from their own indigenous knowledge systems so that they can add to knowledge that may be required for sustainable development and to solve local problems for enhancing the quality of life.
Scientific knowledge from all over the world is needed for sustainable development, as indicated by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments. Development must be global for it to be sustainable. With mobility to The North who creates the scientific knowledge from The South as an input? Who develops The South in a sustainable way?
As good and useful as scientific knowledge is, all products of science are not always beneficial and do not always lead to development or improved quality of life. Science has limitations; it is not all natural phenomena which may be explained by science and there are uncertainties associated with it. In addition, the rationality and objectivity associated with science are regarded by some as being mechanistic and reductionist, and are therefore rejected for other world views that tend to emphasize the totality of phenomena and the effect of the environment in which they occur. Some aspects of this other world view may be helpful in the quest for sustainable development, which is a science and society issue. According to a UNESCO document,
The traditional values of science are meant to safeguard objectivity, neutrality, disinterestedness and rationality. These and other values described by the sociologist Merton have come to be seen as the core ethos of science. Taken to the extreme, however, they may seem to justify absence of ethics, empathy and concern for social implications. The search for universal laws and theories with no attempt to relate them to human values and concerns can present science as abstract and insensitive to human needs, with the result that many people perceive science as cold and lacking a human face.”
There is therefore a desire to put a human face to the things we do with science by tempering the core ethos of science with humaneness so that science gets to be ethical and shows empathy and concern for social justice. Without the presence of the human face, people will look for systems of knowledge other than science, and there are other knowledge systems from the many cultures that exist. Therefore, it behoves scientists to analyze traditional knowledge systems and try to verify what they contain for universal acceptance and use. This is one sure way of moving towards the universality of science, that is, all contributing to and benefiting from scientific knowledge.
The following are some of the challenges posed by the knowledge divide:

  • With the flow of scientists, indigenous knowledge which can contribute to sustainable development will lie unexploited and both The North and The South lose.

  • The divide leads to The North “selling” the knowledge to The South on terms which may compromise sustainable development, whereas “scientifying” the local knowledge may not.

  • Leaders in The South, be they political leaders or Chief Executives in industry, may not even be aware of implications of buying the knowledge because of lack of knowledge, which makes them believe that such a purchase will ultimately bring development to their people, instead of environmental degradation in the long run. There will be no well-trained scientists to advice them.

  • The products of science or scientific knowledge are not owned by scientists in most cases. They are owned either by politicians or by industrial giants who take the decisions not only as to how the products should be used, but also who becomes part of the scientific enterprise. Such a situation tends to contribute towards widening the gap between the societies with the scientific knowledge and those without.

  • Political or industrial decisions could be detrimental to sustainable development whether they are taken in countries in The North where the scientific knowledge and its products are made, or whether in countries in The South receiving instead, of creating the knowledge and making suitable products.

In order to overcome the challenge the world, spearheaded by ICSU - the Voice of Science - ought to pursue an agenda of true universality of science. All the varied social knowledge systems should be used as a source of empirical knowledge. For the sections of the world yet to embrace the scientific knowledge system to the full, it is necessary to utilize aspects of culture, beliefs and practices which are popular mode of explanation. It is also necessary to have a change in human attitudes and values. Such changes, which are needed for sustainable development, derive from indigenous knowledge systems of culture and this must be brought into the realm of science. New social learning practices may have to be devised in order to fuse science and the wealth of knowledge and skills that are indigenous. In order for this to be effective, there must be a closer collaboration between the natural and social sciences and there ought to be a socialization process running in a continuum from civil society to the classroom, to the work place and in the reverse direction. Education then becomes important, but more importantly, the type of education.

The type of education should be such that capacity in science is built all over the world and it should aim at all forms of knowledge being systematized and shared by all. The nature of the capacity building in science, especially for future generations, should be based on ICSU’s definition of Capacity Building in science, which is as follows:
Capacity building in science consists of activities that lead to the establishment or strengthening of a corps of qualified scientists with supporting infrastructure - including facilities and working conditions - that enable them to conduct research, education, training and advisory work, particularly in areas of direct social significance”.
The social aspects become automatic once the scientific work is in the area of direct social significance and involves, in addition to the research, education and training, an advisory role.

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