Harro van Lente Harro van Lente Arjen Schmitz

“The most important form of valorisation is to educate students well”

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:50

When it comes to developing new technologies, what needs are we creating? According to Harro van Lente, UM professor of Science and Technology Studies, this is a question that needs asking more often. Social issues should be the starting point for innovation. And for the valorisation of innovative research, a good education is essential.


Successful new technologies create new needs. In the 1990s, the internet was little more than a strange novelty with only arguable promise. But in the space of 20 years it developed into an indispensable necessity, explains Van Lente. “Nowadays, if you want nothing to do with the internet you're dismissed as a wacko. It’s become a human right, like water or electricity, that you shouldn't be denied without reason.”

Van Lente is active in a broad range of fields. One of the issues that preoccupies him is how emerging technologies create needs. Where is nanotechnology heading, for example? What significance does it have for key social issues, like sustainability? Often, he explains, no one knows how these new technologies will develop. A good example is NanonextNL, a research programme that is attracting major investment. “The idea in medical nanotechnology is that a drug is more effective if you transport it to the correct part of the body using a nanosystem. But we don't know if this promise will hold true.”

Needs are constantly being created, but rarely is it clear which will stick around. Innovative technologies work according to their own laws of dynamics, as Van Lente’s research has shown. Are we really in control? We never actually asked for the mobile phone; it came about by democratic deficit. What’s more, when it comes to identifying our needs we don’t operate as autonomous individuals, much as we’d like to think so. Needs are driven by desires, expectations and large-scale delusion. “They don't just bubble up from within us. They’re always embedded in what you see others do.”

But however hard it may be, we can influence our needs, says Van Lente. Not at the individual level, but collectively. For example, a city might want to reduce the amount of traffic on its roads. Future needs provide more leeway here. “There are always decision points when you can stop and ask, what are the social consequences of this technology? Think of NanonextNL’s lab-on-a-chip, which enables you to carry out many different tests on a single drop of blood. The developers had to weigh up whether the technology should be made available on the mass market or exclusively to professionals. They chose the latter, for fear of ending up with lots of wrong results and placing a huge burden on the healthcare system.”

Responsible innovation
So the basic premise underlying the development of a new technology should be a 'makeable need'. But Van Lente would be happy even to hear the question being raised. What needs are we creating now? Are they desirable? Politicians, too, are urging scientists to think about this question, and 'Europe' is increasingly demanding 'responsible innovation'. “We need to think carefully about our objectives in developing science and technology, and whether or not they’re sound. The uncertainties make it difficult, but it's also dangerous if we don’t.”

Van Lente cautions against the unfettered valorisation of innovative research. “You start seeing that collaboration with companies and start-ups in science parks are put up on a pedestal. As though research is only socially valid if the business world attaches value to it. But even Stanford, the beating heart of Silicon Valley, gets less than 5% of its research funding from the business sector. The average in the Netherlands is 8%. It’s an odd fixation, this idea that innovation is driven by a direct link between universities and businesses.”

Knowledge society
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with the Chemelot Campus or the Maastricht Health Campus, initiatives in which UM collaborates with industry and the provincial authorities. “But it strikes me that the university tends to shine a brighter spotlight on science parks than on education. This feeds into the false suggestion that a university which works closely with companies has more value for society.”

As Van Lente sees it, the most important form of valorisation by far is giving students a good education. “The spin-off of twelve businesses is peanuts compared to the training of tens of thousands of students to function in the knowledge-based society of tomorrow. If you want innovation, you need to teach people to think critically about what technology involves and what opportunities and consequences it has for society. The education on offer today doesn’t come close to meeting this demand.”

Social innovation
So we should be training more technologists, then? On the contrary: “Innovation is about much more than just technology. It's about asking questions, for example about how to organise society so that everyone can make a valuable contribution.” In so far that this happens today, it's pure coincidence, says Van Lente. Palaeoecology, for instance, has suddenly become a hot topic thanks to climate change. Yet experts in this field were studying how global warming changes ecosystems long before it was ‘in’. “That's falls under social innovation,” explains Van Lente, “which is something that’s addressed in programmes like Arts & Culture and European Studies. Though in turn, they could perhaps benefit from a little more technology.”  

Harro van Lente (1962) is full professor of Science and Technology Studies at UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He will also soon become head of the Department of Technology and Society. Van Lente's research focuses on how emerging technologies (e.g. nanotechnology, hydrogen and medical technologies) give rise to novelty and needs. His work spans the areas of technology assessment, foresight, intermediary organisations, the politics of knowledge production and the philosophy of technology.

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