On the Governance of Scientific Innovation and the Avoidance of Irresponsibility (PART 1)

At the centre of the debate within the EU as well as across the Atlantic is a rising problematisation of the definition of roles and responsibilities over the way in which innovation in the scientific and technological field should be governed. Recent innovations in the method of production and dissemination of knowledge can provide an interesting point of departure, however, the logical consequences of such understanding, requires us to look at the structures and dynamics of the emergent pattern of governance linking individuals and organisations from a variety of fields and domains.

I would argue that the nature of 'struggle' for the capacity to govern has not changed. In order to govern, competing political coalitions aim to extend their influence in new and more promising fields. That generally translates into more markets, more customers, more voters, more power and so on. It is therefore not a breakthrough to admit that, but I would argue that what has changed instead is the playfield, alias the fact that we now live in a knowledge society. As a consequence, the basis upon and degrees in which the struggle is expressed is essential to improve our understanding of the issues at stake as well as the definition of a trend toward wider collaboration in order to promote outcomes beneficial to society as a whole.

Governance can be conceptualised in a situation where the overarching rules of the game are known by all players, but the redefinition of the playfield and the present situation of emergence create uncertainty as to what and how the rules should be. Presently, science, and especially empirical investigations used as a starting ground on which to base policy decisions, has not fully acknowledged 'non-expert' new methods being used to deliberate over sensitive policy areas. And especially their impact on the governance and the delineation of the responsibilities of new actors and organisations. Such a redefinition is polarised not only between by the perceptions of old and new actors within contemporary society, but also between society itself.

Citizens armed with new sources ok knowledge over the internet, civil society groups representative of various public and private sector stakeholders, networked individuals and other 'knowledge agents' are gaining increased recognition as a result of their ability to be more responsive to the challenges posed by the knowledge society. However, public perception is not just intended to signify a form of legitimation of political decisions - especially in the highly contested areas of governance of the effects of innovation and technology - but also as a mechanism of feedback of the effects of the same.

This understanding leads to the analysis of a further problematisation. Deliberating on the effects of any new technology means to define first the time span upon which these effects can and will be felt. But how can we define the time span of the effects of a technology such as genetically modified organisms and nanotechnologies? If we follow a precautionary approach, one would argue that science is not able to provide any certainties on these issues. Lobbies and other political actors might influence the process of scientific discovery, the mechanisms of funding of scientific research are not transparent, and therefore scientific governance is considered a highly sensitive area not only within scientific circles, but also in political ones.

The definition of a space of governance immune from this pressures is what the advocates of the precautionary principle prescribe. The famous sociologist Urlich Beck explains that 'definition' is central to govern the conflicts that may arise in the process. But it is the knowledge society globally, nationally as well as locally which is the battleground of the definition of such new playfield of politics. Science is involved at all levels to provide a definition over a thread of issues pertaining the effects of major technological breakthroughs, but the present one transcends all other major innovations of societal, political and economic organisation.

In a recent presentation at the London School of Economics, Bronislaw Szerszynski of the Institute of Environmental and Public Policy at Lancaster University explores the idea that the twenty-first century will be a key site to test the chaning nature and role of politics, which, according to his argument, are becoming geared to shape and optimise vital forces within society. Technology plays a primary role in such new politics, or 'biopolitics' as he says, suggesting that the state has a new role in relation to the use of technology not as a stabiliser, but on the contrary in the nurturing of networks which foster market activity. Is this true?

It is widely known that the internet is an incredibly powerful instrument to access knowledge and information, but what is probably not fully considered is how it impacts also in other areas of scientific discovery. For instance, internet based discussions are becoming an important node to legitimise the definition and the allocation of ethical and political responsibilities over the introduction of new technologies in a variety of activities (see for instance biotechnologies in farming , nanotechnologies -- in this web-space -- and genomics in health care -- in the "Topics" section of the website). The consequences of discussions in extended panels of representatives of various organisations have altogether different and more immediate effects because people's perceptions are transparently known and appropriately channelled. These issues are open to discussion, but I would tend to think that the extent to which this can be conceptualised as a 'market' activity is questionable.


(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 1 June, 2005) --- Permalink ---