Why should scientists and engineers learn social science? This question is often asked of and by scientists and engineers who focus on the natural sciences.

Social science is considered to have little relevance for those who work in laboratories and spaces dedicated to innovation and technological development, which are considered to be charged with natural science and devoid of social phenomena.

In colleges and universities where young minds receive disciplinary training, the natural sciences are segregated from social science, both intellectually and physically.

At the most, scientists and engineers will admit that studying social science helps in understanding the use and adoption of technology once it is launched in society.

But social science does not merely help understand the world that is external to innovation and technological advancement, it also helps reflect upon the processes underlying them. These processes are deeply embedded in broader social, economic and cultural contexts. They are not neutral, predetermined or objective.

In fact, there are several social, economic, technical and ethical choices and considerations involved in the process of technological development. This process includes understanding the laws of nature, applying knowledge to a social problem that has been identified and designing a product to address the problem.

Choices and considerations involve prioritising a social challenge for research, setting research goals and adopting a particular approach for research and development. It also includes assessing the social and environmental impacts of emerging technology throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal.

For instance, scientists aiming to maximise agricultural production have to make several choices. They must consider whether to adopt genetic engineering techniques to create genetically modified crops. But this would prioritise yield or pest resistance at the potential expense of environmental safety, undermining the rigorous analysis of the long-term impact of GM crops on the food web and human well-being.

These choices and considerations shape the form, direction and pace of technological development. The social factors that influence these decisions include market demand, funding mechanisms, business strategy, the potential for commercialisation and profitability.

A farmer at a protest India's plan to introduce genetically-modified mustard crop, in New Delhi in this photograph from 2016. Credit: Reuters.

Often, technological development is driven by values, beliefs, and social norms. For example, over the decades, the limited development of male contraceptives, including contraceptive pills, reflects how male dominance influences technological advancement. The lack of male contraceptive choices places a disproportionate burden of preventing pregnancy on women.

Not all social problems receive the same priority from the scientific and engineering community. The development of new drugs to tackle multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, for instance, remains sluggish.

No new vaccines against tuberculosis have been developed in the last hundred years largely due to their limited commercial potential: the infectious disease largely afflicts poor people in developing countries who have low purchasing power.

In India too, a similar bias shapes technological innovation. The Indian Space Research Organisation in August 2023 landed Chandrayaan-3 on the moon. But the country has yet to develop and deploy a technology that prevents the deaths of manual scavengers or commuters falling to their deaths off local trains in Mumbai.

Even as there have been successes in the space programme, there is a need to acknowledge that the concerns of Adivasis, small and marginal farmers and urban commuters await appropriate innovations.

Career prospects can also play a crucial role in influencing the influx of talent and the pace of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The area that scientists and engineers choose to research or the branch of engineering that a student chooses at the undergraduate level appears to be an individual choice. But this choice is influenced by social factors.

That is why, along with social phenomena such as caste, class and inequality, it is also essential to study the process of innovation and technological development and deployment.

Understanding social science will equip scientists and engineers with skills to critically reflect on the scientific and technological world around them and examine this process of technological development, including their own roles and actions in this process.

Sachin Tiwale is a Fellow at the Centre for Environment and Development, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru. His email address is sachin.tiwale@gmail.com.