On the Governance of Scientific Innovation and the Avoidance of Irresponsibility (PART 2)

It is widely acknowledged that in a number of countries trust in political organisations has recently declined. Some are under attack as a result of their non-compliance with issues of representiveness and accountability, which in turn questions also their relevance and perceived impact in representation of the electorate. But if on one hand the process of economic globalisation inflicted a powerful 'shake up' within various levels of such organisations, it is the new principles operationalised in the framework of the knowledge society that highlights the maladies associated with them. Legitimacy and effectiveness tend to be established as a result of trust in the politics and institutions of democracy, which are not pre-determined and do not seem to "biopoliticise" the will of constituencies at the local level.

Therefore, what seems to be happening is indeed a fundamental realignment of the forces operating in society, government, science and technology (an atmosphere similar to the end of World War II or at the edge of the Cuban crisis of 1962). But the redefinition of the spaces of their governance cannot be captured solely by new forms of trickle-down rhetoric. In the knowledge society in the spotlight is the emergence of a global civil society movement, which redefines its influence on old and new areas of government activity. Similarly, in the definition of a space of debate (or a forum) about the appropriateness of technological innovations and the time span of their effects, it means that policy makers need to apply extra elements of precaution. For instance, the need to encourage investment in important areas of technological expertise in the attempt to promote social and welfare objectives should be weighted against the effects of an unrestraint focus on commercialisation and the benefits coming from supporting public university research.

Let us consider the following example to explain some of the mechanisms at work in redefining the space of scientific and technological governance. In the political arena, the biological life span of human beings is considered the longest term time horizon to formulate decisions on the risks and effects of the introduction of innovations such as Genetically Modified Organisms, making the effort to manage and control these risks bound by uncertainty at the outset. In such a setting no one can take any responsibility for the outcomes because none of those making decisions today will be anymore able to be held accountable for the side-effects that these innovations may have in the future. Nevertheless, an emerging trend sees governments around Europe to give less support for basic research in the public sector, while considering research that lead to faster commercialisation both a way to generate good science as well as strong economic growth. To be sure, if science becomes involved in the formulation of complex political decisions, even if scientists do not have any responsibility of the impact of their discoveries, the outcome could be more irresponsibility rather than less.

Whereas an accepted definition renders in durable form the process of translation of scientific discovery, an irresponsible involvement of science in political decisions may result only in those discoveries which can be ex ante perceived acceptable by political discussions. Typically, it would be more effective to create coalitions based on the established characteristics of their members where the internal governance of the participating organisation(s) is just as important and their external stability and should not be disregarded as an important element within the discussion of the governance mechanisms used for the creation of such 'nested' mechanisms of representation. In an article written in 1996, but still insightful today, Richard Nelson and Paul Romer stress the way in which the economic threats of war increase the need of domestic security, which in turn is historically associated with a re-alignment of science and technology policy and with a major change in the economic role of academia.

Because the governance of science emerges as a very important aspect of the knowledge society to minimise the failures of the market, which may lead to endemic and systemic failures when, as Beck puts it, society become a laboratory where nobody responsible for the outcome of the experiment, this is an important call for society as a whole to act on the principle of democratic responsibility. However, Beck has not fully acknowledged in his work that the playfield has changed too and how the shift of alliances, coalitions and oppositions is now reconfiguring over different spaces of governance. Science has the responsibility to use its knowledge, power and instruments to delineate scenarios which citizens can use also to evaluate the impact of scientific discovery. Their participation is therefore essential to define the appropriate spheres of democratic interaction within the emerging knowledge society. In such setting, the meanings that different actors place upon risk controversies are negotiated in a dynamic interaction within the political and governmental context of the country in which specific issues are discussed, but also among the varied standpoints and attitudes adopted by individuals and groups within social settings outside the borders of their nation.

It should also be made clear that such involvement has great political implications which may alter the nature of the rights of future generations by affirming the superiority of populist mechanisms of deliberation opposed to scientific independence from ethical, political and religious matters. To be sure, in the myriad of opinions and competing models even scientists risk to become lost on the way towards the 'truth'. But it is the acceptance from society which ultimately deliberates on the innovative capacity of a discovery and albeit we can discuss of these processes of acceptance in abstract terms, it is difficult not to note the effects of another emergent innovation, which is transforming the mechanisms used to decide over the governance of science itself.

Many questions are still left unanswered in relation to the problematisations expressed here. Especially about the redefinition of the playing field and the transitory 'irresponsible' phase before there will be a multi-effort steering towards a new definition of its spheres of governance especially to link innovation and responsibility, research and reality. It is not surprising that the economic decline of many countries around Europe is the result of the lack of attention from national governments to education and research in percentage of their countries' Gross Domestic Product. New forms and structures of cooperation will be critical to address this concern, not just to increase funding for research, but also to maintain the vitality of science and scientific communities and their valuable contributions to the society that supports it. Therefore, what I would ask to Ulrich Beck is: how can a dialogue be built during the transition for the creation of a process of joint-responsibility? How can different cultures be involved from the realms of politics, ethics and science and what deals constitute proof under the present condition of uncertainty?

In the context of the knowledge society this means re-framing the concept of governance, alias a combination of physical and virtual spaces and flows of interaction where the relationships among and between entities called to express their opinion and participate in the process of decision making is radically different and transcends altogether traditional types of governance. Paraphrasing Soshana Zuboff's comments in a special issue of the Harvard Business Review about the role of research and innovation, governance can be enabled by technology, but it needs legitimacy from society. In conclusion, however we envision the role of science and scientists, it is up to society, its constituencies and elected representatives to have a say on how science can be beneficial to support the advancement of a responsible and sustainable progress. This, however, cannot be solely a function of science because of the political nature which defines the roles and responsibilities of the effects of scientific discoveries and the decisions about the policies to minimise the side-effects of innovations. And because the life span of the effects of these innovations is often difficult to define, scientific knowledge remains central. Therefore, existing and new forms of governance have essential and complementary roles to deliberate on the definition of scientific innovation in order to govern systemic market failures and avoid irresponsibility.

Further reading:

Nelson, R.R. & P.M. Romer (1996) Science, Economic Growth and Public Policy, Challenge, March-April 1996.

Nature' Special Report on "Science & Africa: A message to the G8 summit"

See in this web-space the article 'The Democratic Responsibility of Scientific Power.

Please write me if you have any comments, ideas or feedback.

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 5 July, 2005) --- Permalink ---