There’s a developing conventional wisdom about the way science and technology in general, and nanotechnology in particular, is developing in Asia. This comes in two parts: firstly, it’s noted that the Asian countries – particularly China – are set to overtake the west in science and technology, and then it’s suggested that what will help these countries gain their new supremacy is the fact that there, technology will be developed without moral scruples, in contrast to the self-inflicted handicaps that Western countries are suffering. These handicaps, conventional wisdom further asserts, take the form, in the United States, of opposition from the religious right to the entire secular, scientific worldview, while in Europe anti-growth, left-wing environmentalists are the major culprits. The idea of a lawless, wild east, where technological stuff just gets done without agonising about social and environmental consequences, is becoming a bit of a bogeyman for western politicians, as nicely pointed out in this recent Demos pamphlet.
Clearly the rapid development of nanotechnology, together with biotechnology and other branches of advanced applied science, in China, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, is a significant and important story that’s likely to profoundly change the shape of the world political economy over the next twenty years. But I can’t entirely buy in to the current mood of panic about this. Firstly, idealistic though I may be, I don’t believe that the development of science and technology is a zero-sum game. The opposite, in fact – the benefits of technological advances can spread from their place of invention very rapidly round the world. Given on the one hand, the very urgent environmental and developmental problems that need to be solved in the world now, and on the other, the entirely legitimate aspirations of the citizens of less developed countries to the lifestyles we enjoy in the west, the rapid development of science and technology in countries like China should be welcomed. Secondly, it just doesn’t seem plausible that science and technology really will develop in these countries without being constrainted by societal values. I know much less than I would like about the cultures, beliefs and values of these different countries, but I’m sure that societal and ethical issues will be hugely important in steering the development of technology there, even though some of those issues may be different from the ones that are important in the west. And just as the west consists of many different countries with societal values that differ from each other in important ways, the idea of a monolithic set of “Asian values” must be at best a gross oversimplification.
An interesting little vignette that illuminates some of these issues is provided by the recent saga about the troubles of the Korean stem cell pioneer Hwang Woo-Suk. Heavily criticised in the west for the ethical lapse of using donated eggs from his own graduate students, he has been strongly defended in his native Korea. At first sight, this seems to exactly support the conventional wisdom – in this view the Koreans have gained a world-leading position in stem-cell research by simply pressing ahead while western countries – particularly, in this case, the USA – have hesitated due to moral and religious qualms. But, as discussed in this very interesting article in the Economist, the reality is probably rather more complex and nuanced.