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Breakthrough Institute honors Juma’s work in biotechnology

By Alliance for Science staff

Professor Calestous Juma

The Breakthrough Institute has given Calestous Juma its Paradigm Award in honor of his scholarship and thought leadership in biotechnology and innovation.

“The Paradigm Award really represents my lifelong commitment to the application of science and technology to conservation,” said Juma, a professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “I see it not so much because of the work I’ve done but as a source of inspiration to younger people who are trying to make the world a better place.”

The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Juma was selected because “of all global impacts on the environment, none has a bigger footprint than food and agriculture, and few scholars are better prepared to discuss and advise our agricultural future,” according to its press release.

In presenting the award at the June 22 Breakthrough Dialogue in California, Ted Nordhaus, director of research at BTI, offered additional rationale:

"As we consider the role that energy plays in economic growth and human development, we found Calestous’ tremendous influence in the complex and challenging conversation over “appropriate technology” and industrial development in Africa.

And when we were settling on Democracy in the Anthropocene as the theme of this Dialogue, Calestous’ new book — “Innovation and Its Enemies” — was just being published. It was obvious who should sit on stage this year.

I think everyone in this room is struggling with this question of how to balance modernization — both early modernization and late modernization — with bottom-up skepticism of technology, institutions, and governments. It’s easy for those of us who have witnessed the incredible progress technology and democracy have delivered to insist that that progress be allowed to continue. It’s easy for us pro-nuclear people to laugh off radiophobia. It’s easy for us pro-GMO people to shrug off “Luddites” frightened of new technologies. It’s easy to insist that our norms and institutions will brave any storm.

What’s amazing about Calestous is that, more than anyone I’ve come across who writes about “innovation’s enemies” is how deeply he engages with them and, indeed, how much he respects them. Reading Calestous’ take on the diffusion of electricity in the 19th century, mechanical refrigeration, genetically modified salmon, you come to understand that not only is technological skepticism often justified, but might indeed be a necessary struggle for a technology’s eventual success. As technology advances, institutions mature, and societies modernize, more people are more empowered and yet more removed from the processes of production and innovation that make modern society possible.

Democratic rights. Self-determination. Identity. These are privileges of modernity and yet also the things that come into tension with innovation and change. It can be frustrating, but Calestous reminds us that it is not always Luddism: it is the essential friction through which, we still hope and believe, modernization, growth, innovation, and democracy continue to evolve.”

The award comes with a cash prize, which Juma returned to the Institute.

“The reason is this is a young movement, driven by young people,” he explained. “I thought that making a financial commitment to Breakthrough was a way I could support it, and it is really a tribute to the work the institute does and there is no quicker way to do that then to donate the prize money back to the institute.”

Previous recipients include Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel,  David MacKay and last year’s winner, Ruth DeFries, professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

“The award from the Breakthrough Institute was indeed a great honor,” DeFries said. “It gave me a sense of support to pursue out of the box, counter to the tribe, thinking.”

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