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  • Science and Technology Policy in the United States: Open Systems in Action
  • Shobita Parthasarathy (bio)
Science and Technology Policy in the United States: Open Systems in Action. By Sylvia Kraemer. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Pp. xi+325. $24.95.

In this book Sylvia Kraemer argues that the United States has historically dominated global scientific and technological development because of its “open systems” approach to governance, which includes transparent, pluralistic, and publicly accountable political institutions and competition among innovators. Innovators follow a familiar recipe: initial policies provide seed funding to innovators through an open and competitive process, while future development is handled by a free market which allows for a healthy battle among ideas and informed decision-making among consumers. Kraemer develops this argument by providing a broad overview of the American science and technology policymaking apparatus and placing it in the context of the political and economic philosophies—including the ideology of the free market and the connections between technological and social progress—that guided America’s founding.

The benefits of the open systems approach can be clearly seen, Kraemer argues, through the evolution of the information technology industry since the 1960s. Key technologies in this arena were funded by the government (for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], which coordinated the early internet) using open architectures that allowed many people to contribute, at various stages, in the developmental process. As these technologies entered the marketplace, a balance was struck between collaboration and competition so that innovators were able to correct one another’s mistakes, which ultimately led to better technologies for the public.

Scientific and technological development in the United States has not always operated according to an open systems approach, however, and Kraemer uses the American health care system to demonstrate the failures of a closed system. This area of policymaking, she argues, is neither pluralistic nor transparent, and it violates the “universality of access” principle of the open system. Not only do many people lack access to health care, she notes, but “the US health care system is opaque. Its inner workings are obscured by the special vocabularies and understandings of medical practice and commerce—administrators as well as practicing physicians, medical assistants, researchers, and commercial suppliers of drugs, medical devices, and hospital care” (p. 195). The average American’s choices are constrained by her socioeconomic status and employment and educational background, to her detriment. Neither does she have an equal opportunity to access health care, nor does the closed system allow her to make informed choices. [End Page 819]

Kraemer makes her analysis particularly compelling by introducing the histories of key episodes from multiple subfields, including information technology, biotechnology, space science, and energy and environmental policy. This breadth allows readers to see beyond single technologies and industries in order to understand the unifying features of science and technology policymaking while also acknowledging individual complexities. Kraemer makes a very important contribution by placing science and technology policymaking in the context of the values and priorities that have influenced all public policymaking in America throughout its history. Far too often, science and technology policy is seen as exceptional, and this arena has only recently become a viable subject of study in the social sciences and in schools of public policy.

Kraemer’s “open systems” thesis brings a fresh analytical perspective to a discussion about America’s global competitiveness, which is usually limited to cries for better science and engineering education and lobbying for looser restrictions on high technology industries. In so doing, however, her thesis raises important questions about what characterizes an open system, particularly in the context of recent calls to increase democratic participation in science and technology policy. Rather than being truly transparent and publicly accountable, science and technology policymaking—unlike almost any other policymaking arena—has been the province of technocratic elites. Not only is this contrary to America’s founding principles, it also leads to poorer decisions, particularly when dealing with controversial technologies (for examples, see David Guston, “Integrity, Responsibility, and Democracy in Science,” Scipolicy 1 [2001]: 168–89; Guston and Daniel Sarewitz, “Real-Time Technology Assessment,” Technology in Society 24 [2002]: 93–109; and Daniel...


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pp. 819-820
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