A recent conversation with a German scientist has prompted a thought that I’m finding hard to shake. He is beginning a research project on the role of trade unions in science policy. In Germany, trade unions are apparently considered important stakeholders in debates about the funding, steering and regulation of scientific research. They have been intimately involved in government discussions around innovation towards a new generation of electric cars, for example.

If we take a common economic definition of innovation as a new combination of the factors of production, we can see that workers have a clear interest, even if it is only realised after the fact. Reconfiguring large parts of the German economy would have profound implications for the workforce, their skills, training and employment. Aside from those representing scientists themselves, we don’t see trade unions much in contemporary UK science policy discussions, although we can look back on a rich history of uninvited engagement in innovation debates.

In nineteenth century Britain, the Industrial Revolution threatened the livelihoods of many skilled workers. A group of handloom weavers reacted to the introduction of automated looms that required fewer, unskilled workers by taking their revenge on the new machines. The group’s name has since become a byword for those who stand in the way of progress, but the political message of the Luddites can help us understand public reactions to disruptive innovation. The loudest discussions about the pros and cons of GM crops in the UK were about their risks to health and the environment. But, as was discussed in our Reaping the Benefits report, debates about GM crops in developing countries necessarily centre on how new farming technologies will affect local societies and economies. Maybe the Luddites had a point…

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