Distributional Assessment of Emerging Technologies: Case Studies in the Americas

Project Investigator: 
Susan Cozzens
NSF Award No. 0726919
Project Duration: 
October 2007
Focal Technologies: 

Despite decades of strong economic growth, the problem of global inequality is still large. Within-country inequality is clearly on the rise, and most poor nations are not closing the global gap in standard of living.

Emerging technologies are a strategic research site for examining the interaction of inequalities between countries and inequalities within countries. Conceptually, emerging technologies are defined in this project as new and research-based, with potential broad impact. Operationally, the project studies the actual distributional consequences of selected biotechnologies and information and communication technologies (ICTs). These examples are then used to develop a framework for thinking about the distributional consequences of other emerging technologies. The framework is tested in the latter stages of the project against what is known and projected about the distributional consequences of nanotechnologies.

Why study emerging technologies in this project? First, precisely because they are new. Emerging technologies are the site of change and growth in both global and local economies. Second, because emerging technologies are research-based, they are more likely to be sold at high prices (as firms try to recoup research and development costs) and to demand high levels of skills in the production process. Both these characteristics give emerging technologies a higher potential than older technologies for increasing inequalities in access and employment. Third, emerging technologies stand at the intersection of global and national distributive processes. They may insert the economic needs of affluent countries into less affluent economies, or they may serve as tools of economic and human development. This study provides an opportunity to examine both of these patterns in action. It assumes that reality is more complex than either the 'dominating North' or 'optimistic South' views, so it describes the actual distributional dynamics generated by emerging technologies in various national contexts.

This project collects data for and synthesizes results of an interlocking set of case studies, each of which consists of a country-technology pair. The research aims to (1) describe the dynamics that link emerging technologies to patterns of inequality; (2) identify the roles of public interventions in those dynamics; and (3) develop a framework that policy actors can use prospectively to analyze the distributional valence of a specific new technology in a particular national context. The European and African portions of the work have already been funded by the European Commission.

Intellectual merit. The project examines a topic that is important both within science and technology policy studies and the broader social science analysis of the dynamics of global inequality. It does this on a sound empirical basis within a rich comparative framework that allows analysis by countries within technologies and by technologies within countries. The study incorporates both qualitative and quantitative information and is likely to contribute to the development of impact indicators as well as innovation policy practice.

Broader impacts. The study takes place in a doctoral training program and supports one doctoral student and two postdoctoral scholars. The team is diverse, and we have Latin American and African collaborators as well as European ones. In addition to broad dissemination to scholars in the field, the plan includes engagement with policy audiences. Through these audiences, the results of the research could influence efforts to reduce poverty and inequalities in many national contexts.