Hebe Vessuri is an Argentine social anthropologist. In 2017, she was recognized with the John Desmond Bernal Prize Award from the Society for Social Studies of Science.
In history, the relationship between democracy and politics appears at least involved in tensions. And in connection with the place of science in liberal democratic policy, tensions are fundamental and endemic. In practice, experts often carry the burden of, in Jasanoff’ terms, a political agenda that is either honestly declared or else is presented as “value-free facts”. The position of experts differs from that of the public in general. The nature and the role of experts and of expert judgment is today under heavy scrutiny.
Latin America is a world region that appears to be soaked in politics, it breathes politics, it eats politics, it dies from politics. The relationship between politics and science and technology tends to occur in a sui generis manner. Technicians in public office usually function as experts, as technocrats, supporting the government’s function, but not as political actors themselves and in the few occasions in which technical people reach the maximum government post, they tend to be susceptible to criticisms for not responding in a sufficiently “political” manner or because of their public conduct in general.
Francisco Sagasti is a Peruvian citizen chosen President of the Congress of the Republic of Peru, 2020-2021 and soon after, appointed Interim President of the Republic for 2020-2021 in the midst of a very serious crisis of the political system. Why can he be of interest to an STS audience? It cannot but be a surprise that while the U.S. and the U.K. have presidents who disbelieve science -and have developed public policies in consequence- In Latin America, even if it is because of a strange combination of hazardous factors- an STS expert has reached the presidency of his country.
Who is he? His image seems to have been taken from a 19th century portrait of a nineteenth-century hero of aristocratic extraction. He has an incredible personal library, with an unbelievable collection of science fiction literature, guitar player, singer and composer that lit so many gatherings with friends. But besides these more frivolous comments, I wish to emphasize that although much younger, he earned a place among the thinkers of the Latin American Science and Technology Thought generation. He was an early herald of the STS era, accumulating practical experience in the exercise of public and private functions through many decades. He is a multifaceted figure. Engineer, economist, social scientist, cosmopolitan, has occupied innumerable posts in public organizations like IDRC of Canada, ECLA, SELA, World Bank, UNDP. In Peru in 1980 he was co-founder of GRADE, the Group of Analysis for Development, a well-known Peruvian private research institution with no party affiliation, devoted to the study of economic, educational, environmental and social subjects relevant to the development of Peru and other Latin American countries. And he was its general director for seven years.
I have followed on and off Francisco´s trajectory since the late 1970s, since I met him in Vienna in August 1979, where he had an active role in the International Colloquium on Science, Technology and Society: Needs, Challenges and Limitations, sponsored by the United Nations Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology of Development . Those years were a propitious time to raise questions about how to design and implement science and technology policies for development, ripe in attempts to understand the most effective ways of building scientific and technological capabilities in developing countries.
That was the time the STPI (Science and Technology Policy Instruments) project from IDRC (International Development Research Center) of Canada was conceived and executed. In 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the STPI project identification meeting provided an opportunity to examine the long-term impact of the first large-scale, international policy-oriented research initiative in S&T policy for development. This was a large, self-managed, action-oriented international research project by researchers and policymakers from developing countries . A statement towards the end of the project by KunMo Chung, country coordinator for the Republic of Korea team, summarized the key features of STPI:
The STPI project was a unique experiment. It was designed and performed by Third World researchers, who gained invaluable experience in working with other Third World counterparts. It involved a wide spectrum of specialists, many of whom rarely had opportunities for professional interaction with experts in other areas and gained new perspectives on the problems of developing countries. It was not research in the purse sense: the exchange of experience was as important as generating new knowledge. Close examination of such issues as technological self-reliance, technological diplomacy, consulting engineers and design organizations, and evaluation of industrial technology, gave the participants a long-term, broad view of the technological system in the context of economic development .
More than 30 books and reports resulted from STPI, and the country teams produced numerous working papers, documents, and policy briefs. Many meetings were held in various parts of the world, and this helped to build a tight and quite effective policy research network that quickly spread best practices. The impact of the STPI project was significant in most of the participant countries, and its results helped to shape the international debate on science, technology and development during the 1970s and 1980s. Sagasti was the director of the STPI Field Coordination Office.
After STPI he was active in numerous other international consulting and official positions. But he always had a political vein. In 1992 he started an ambitious project, AGENDA: Peru, trying to understand better the political, economic and social reality of Peru, analyzing the multiple mentalities that gravitated in the country and tracing specific plans for the future. From this period came his note “Reflexions for a president”, published in 1994 . There he distinguished between a head of state and an administrator and argued that a president had to be someone who knew very well the country but also the world beyond, since in a world increasingly interrelated it is impossible to govern well a country without knowing very well how the international system functions. He insisted that a president need to be a builder and for building it needs someone who listens, who is able to understand and keep a dialogue, who has the capacity of creating institutions, of negotiating, and of creating a climate of opening and dialogue. Sagasti was very much aware, already in 1999, that it is not possible to put in practice any strategic lines that he had identified if there were no institutional reforms aiming to consolidate institutions and governability.
In 1999 Francisco Sagasti co-founded the Partido por la Democracia Social (PDS) – Compromiso Perú. From 2007 to 2009 he was president of the Science and Technology Board (FINCyT) in the Ministers’ Council and was re-appointed in December 2011 and March 2013. From 2009 to 2014 he was main researcher of the FORO Nacional/Internacional, an entity devoted to promote the debate and consensus about critical subjects for the national and international development of Peru. Another sample of his political inclinations appears in an interview in the Peruvian website El Comercio December de 2019, when Sagasti was characterized as “the political articulator” of the Partido Morado that had been created in March that year. They also mentioned that he was a university faculty and contributed 10% of his salary to the party. “There is no contribution of any big business. There is no owner of the party”, he declared when he was asked.
In these early decades of the 21st century Latin America is delayed relative not only to North America, Europe and Japan, but also with regard to the emergent countries of Asia, particularly China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea, which had levels similar to those of Latin America as far as knowledge capacities of generation and use during the 1970s, the period when the ideas of science, technology and development in the region flourished. Sagasti raises this question in the Introduction to his farewell book on science, technology and innovation in Latin America (2011). But he does not find simple and adequate answers for all the countries in such a diverse and heterogeneous region as ours.
Clearly, the current situation in Peru is one that requires a skillful walker at the tightrope, with political sensitivity, moral integrity, and an important quota of trust from the expectant population. I wish Francisco and the Peruvian people a successful transit of these delicate months ahead in the re-institutionalization of governance.