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Political Economy & Technology Policy

This CIS program applies theories and methods from the discipline of political economy to examine issues in science and technology policy. In each of the four clusters of activity described below, political economists from the social sciences work closely with MIT technologists at the Technology and Policy Program (TPP) and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE), with MIT humanists in the Science, Technology and Society Program (STS), with government, nongovernmental organizations, and private firms, and with academic partners at Cambridge University, the Stockholm School of Economics and Chalmers University, the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH) and the University of Tokyo.

Emergent Technologies
Emerging technologies in areas such as ubiquitous computing, genetic engineering, and micro and nanotechnologies are developing at extraordinary rates, and have the potential to change fundamentally many aspects of society. Understanding of the economic, security, environmental, and cultural implications of technological advances has not kept pace with underlying changes in technology. This project is intended to improve responses to emerging technologies. The research component of this proposed activity will feature panels of technologists, social scientists, and humanists that will identify potential effects, highlight critical sources of uncertainty, and evaluate limits of their knowledge. The educational component will feature intensive doctoral training on the assessment of technological change and associated security, economic, environmental and societal effects. The active participation of government, business, and NGOs is an integral feature of this project, serving to check on academic blindness, to enrich graduate education, and to engage the world beyond the academy. Kenneth Oye, Lawrence McCray, and Cindy Williams of CIS, Daniel Hastings, Dava Newman, Frank Field and Renee Robins of TPP and Roe Smith, David Mindell and Rosalind Williams of STS will lead this project. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is currently supporting these activities under the Program on Emerging Technologies' Integrated Graduate Research and Training program.

Uncertainty and Environmental Decisionmaking
Governmental and private sector decision making on environmental, health and safety problems faces substantial degrees of uncertainty. This project seeks to improve responses to uncertainty through two strands of research. One group is examining how scientific and technical information is processed by the press, scientific advisory groups, and other institutions, and how sourcing of information affects credibility. A report by Lawrence McCray with preliminary findings from a workshop on these issues is linked to this site. Current research is examining links between funding sources and inferences on the credibility of research on passive smoking and dietary issues. One group is examining how scientific and technical information is incorporated into initial regulatory decisions and on how initial decisions may be revised in light of emerging unexpected side benefits and costs, mitigation choices, and constraints on policies. Current research includes an assessment of inertial tendencies associated with the use of models and technical standards and test procedures in public policy. Research on these themes is being conducted by James Foster, Lawrence McCray, Kenneth Oye, and Mark deFiguerido of MIT, David Reiner (Cambridge University), and Brian Zuckerman (Abt Associates). These activities are supported by the MIT Alliance for Global Sustainability and the CIS Japan Energy Endowment.

Regulation and the Management of Business Risk
The literature on political economy of regulation, most centrally classic essays by George Stigler, demonstrates how conventional regulations of price, competition and conditions of entry affect the competitive position of firms. The work of this research group extends that tradition, by examining how health, safety, and environmental regulations affect risks associated with technology development, including financing, securing property rights, developing or guaranteeing demand for processes and products, and on securing de facto waivers from threats to limit market concentration. Activities in this area include:

  • A symposium on domestic environmental, health and safety regulation and international trade conducted in partnership with ETH and the University of Tokyo, with edited book scheduled for completion in fall 2003.
  • Dual workshops on HDV and LDV diesel with EPA, CARB, major manufacturers, NRDC, UCS, and ED held in fall 2002 and fall 2003 conducted in partnership with the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, John Heywood of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, and Greg Mcrae of Chemical Engineering.
  • Preliminary studies on regulatory competition in pulp and paper, automotive and fuel, and consumer electronics sectors with associated workshops, conducted in partnership with the Stockholm School of Economics, Cambridge University, and ETH.

Research personnel working on these issues include James Foster, Kenneth Oye, Christine Ng, Mark DeFigueiredo, and Craig Hart of MIT, Thomas Bernauer, Joanne Kauffman and Ladina Caduff of ETH, Christos Pitelis and David Reiner of Cambridge University, Niclas Adler, Fleming Norgren and Mikael Roman of FENIX, Inger Weibust of Carleton Ottawa, David Victor of Stanford University, and Hotaka Katahira and Hideaki Shiroyama of the University of Tokyo. These projects have been supported by the Alliance for Global Sustainability, the Finnish Environmental Institute, Mistra, and the Cambridge-MIT initiative.

North-South Financial and Technology Transfers
This project examines matches and mismatches between international transfers of technology and capital and local environmental conditions defined in both technical and economic terms. One project is examining export financing and aid activities directed at reducing environmental problems, with in-depth work on Chinese coal combustion. Engineers Janos Beer, Adel Sarofim, Fang Jinghua, Xu Xuchan, Yue Guangxi, Sadakata Masayoshi, scientists Hans Siegmann and Hans Martin Seip, and social scientists Cui Zhiyuan, Kenneth Oye, Karen Polenske, and Shiroyama Hideaki have worked with graduate students Lynn Yang, Guanghai Li, and Peter Evans. One project is examining policy problems associated with creating incentives for international activities to address both local and global environmental problems. Kenneth Oye, Mario Molina, and Henry Jacoby have been working with graduate students Marcus Sarofim and Rebecca Dodder on an assessment of the implications of local health-global climate complementarities for policies in Mexico City, China and Costa Rica. These projects have been supported by the Alliance for Global Sustainability, NEDO, the Center for Global Partnership, MISTI and the MIT Joint Program on Climate Change.

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