Science, Politics and Responsibility: An Agenda for the Governance of Innovation and Technology


"When we go from 'daily life' to scientific activity, from the man in the street to the man in the laboratory, from politics to expert opinion, we do not go from noise to quiet, from passion to reason, from heat to cold. We go from controversies to fiercer controversies" (Latour, 1987:30).

It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide ultimate and definitive answers about the governance of innovation and technology. However, in response to the call for comments conducted by Critstina Grasseni, we will try to explore the tensions surrounding this debate and suggest some definitions to help the reader go through the maze of conflicting interpretations, hoping that it would provide some elements that can stimulate further discussion and support a constructive debate about such controversial themes. We would first start by asking: to what extent is the debate surrounding the division of the responsibilities of science and politics an innovation for policy making and risk communication? And how can a constructive discussion about these themes improve democratic forms of consensus and deliberation over otherwise un-reconciliable domains?

The culprits of such debate have been a series of shocking news regarding both the authorship and the validity of some papers published in notorious scientific Journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, and specialist magazines such as Nature, focussed on recent innovations in the field of biomedicine. However, already in 2002, the Committee on Assessing Integrity in Research Environments of the Institute of Medicine at the National Research Council of the United States, issued a report titled 'Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct' which attempts to define and describe those elements that encourage individuals involved in scientific research to act with integrity.

Looking at the recent developments within one of the pillars of the welfare state (the health sector) it seems that, fours years after, the reach of these issues not only has become a locus of cogent political struggles in the United States, but also in Europe and in the developing world. The latest news regard a South Korean stem cell scientist, Hwang Woo Suk, who faked his research on stem cells (used for embryo cloning experiments). The various facets of the governance of scientific innovation, the role of experts and non-experts in such process and their responsibility in the translation of a powerful technology in innovation, have been the theme of a series of articles published on web-site of the Giannino Bassetti Foundation. These controversies in science and technology are increasingly framed as ethical and moral rather than as merely technical disputes, but then spark also grand political debates.

Governmentality and innovation

The debate which divides politicians and scientists all over Europe extends beyond these considerations, which, looking at their immediate political impact, questions not just which source of evidence should be considered as legitimate science (the question of who politicians should trust), but also what should be the system of values to apply when deciding upon the policies deemed to be most appropriate to deliberate on the social impact of these technologies. Therefore, policies and regulations regarding the social impact of new technologies, which aim to minimise the sources of potential risks or dangers these may cause, have more than one domain of application, but are particularly sensitive areas because concern the life and death of millions of individuals. Biomedicine is but one of the untested territories in the field of science and technology studies that is propagating the feeling of uncertainty and indeterminacy that typically accompanies the introduction of a radical innovation. Especially because it is difficult to predict what the long term effects will be on human health, but also in the ecosystem of our planet. Think also how the concerns regarding the validity of research being expressed here for the field of biomedicine may also apply for the fields of biotech, genetics, nanotech, and technologies of information and communication.

The possibility to define a role for science and indeed also of scientists in issues of interest for the well-being of society has shifted the focus of public opinion only on the external representation of a limited understanding of the scientific domain. Take the example of a pharmaceutical company filing for the approval of a new drug, who would doubt about the importance of applying a scientific rationality (and indeed great precaution) before bringing the drug to the attentions of the regulators, and only when it has been tested and considered safe? Patti Lather (2004) reminds us that in Focauldian terms, policy is one of three technologies of governmentality, the others being diplomatic/military and economic. Governmentality is associated to the concept of biopolitics, where the state intervenes at a distance (i.e. via regulation) in the striking attempt to balance such intervention with a liberal approach to politics. Such 'political arithmetic' (Foucault, 1998) makes particular kinds of discourse both possible and necessary.

The debate regarding the responsibility and involvement of scientists in such decisions (or better said those scientists that fail to abide to the principles of Science with the capital 'S') probably would be hard to explain to historians that wrote about the Enlightenment (a period marked by scientific and technological discovery) after the Dark Ages. Since then science has been a power engine of economic development, advancing the status of human knowledge and capacity contributing to innovations that have raised the living standards of the population. The list of inventions that have transformed or revolutionised people's everyday lives is endless. One needs just to look at the office space today as opposed to ten years ago to start noticing some remarkable differences. And of course this is only part of a longer history of continuous improvement upon pre-existing discoveries.

The artifacts of innovation surround us when we want to call our relatives or friends, book a flight or report a fault in one of our many gadgets. Such artifacts are, however, only the effect of a far more complex process of negotiation and confrontation between a diverse set of actors responsible for (or at least involved in) various degrees with their conceptualisation, design, development and production. Such actors belong to, as well as are part of, different and sometimes competing domains. From a Foucaldian perspective, what becomes of interest to disentangle their interaction is how such distinctions are created ('good' vs. 'bad'; 'responsible' vs. 'irresponsible') and upon which bases of knowledge do they build their authority. For simplicity, we can outline their agendas as related to Science, Politics and Technology.

Science, Politics and Technology

Distinguishing between Science, Politics and Technology leads to a different level of understanding the role between Science (with the capital 'S') and the politics of science, a particular area of scientific activity, which does not reflect the ideals upon which its aspiration is enacted within the fragmented existence of competing and conflicting communities. Beyond the ideal - Science - we find the existence of a 'varieties of science' hypothesis. In this context Politics is important because it defines who is important. However, Politics is not the same as 'policy', a more ambiguous term which can be used to refer to:

- Government, administration, the conduct of public affairs; political science;
- Political sagacity; prudence, skill, or consideration of expediency in the conduct of public affairs; statecraft, diplomacy; in bad sense, political cunning;
- A course of action adopted and pursued by a government, party, ruler, statesman, etc.; any course of action adopted as advantageous or expedient.

At this stage is thus important to make a further distinction between Science and Technology and especially their underlying objectives. By those who practice it, science can be considered a disinterested search for the pleasure of discovery, with the ambition to advance the status of human knowledge against the backdrop of ignorance which surrounds the sphere of knowledge of the laymen. Technology instead can be understood as expressing a different rationality, which is guided by an entirely different set of interests. In the Heideggerian conception, Technology can be interpreted as the construct of science, 'a power whose great role in determining history can hardly be over estimated' (Heidegger, 1976). Thus, when a reference to science is made, perhaps many consider 'scientific' the latter, not the former understanding which are sometimes confused in general discussions about this topic.

Unfortunately, it is not only a matter of academic debate because policies and regulations are based on definitions and are implemented as understood also by the (political) meaning which is assigned to them. A fascinating example of this case is made in an article regarding the level of safety of microwaves produced by mobile telephones. Interestingly, however tight or loose the definition of the level of acceptable exposure to the microwaves produced by mobile telephones, this does not seem to stop anyone from buying mobile telephones or reduce the growth rate of this sector, despite in some countries it already is a nearly saturated market. Despite the controversies, mobile phone sales worldwide have increased by nearly 150 million units sold in 2005 (21% more than the units sold in 2004) and the higher percentages of growth rates can be found in the fast developing areas of Latina America, Far and Middle East.

So there are indeed many ways to interpret the contours of the complex relationship existing in the space of interaction of science, politics and society. According to Richard A. Pielke (2002) a mutually reinforcing 'iron triangle' theory explains why science has become political. The theory can be briefly explained as follows: in a corner are the politicians, always careful about the opinions of their voters and generally seek to avoid the consequences of having to make a decision; in another are the scientists, which are empowered to provide policy answers with the funding they receive for their research; and in a third corner are interest groups and lobbies, which look for scientific evidence 'to provide a compelling justification for their political, societal, environmental or business goal'. Both precaution and responsibility apply to all of the groups identified by Pielke's colorful representation.

A British perspective on the governance of science

On the other hand, moving to another set of issues, these ideas do not necessarily apply to the whole of the scientific profession, and the generally accepted methodological prescriptions that can hold in a stable and predictable environment need not to apply when transitional activities are involved such as the definition of responsibilities in a new field of study or discipline. Acknowledging that also research is a human activity therefore means to understand first of all that researchers are human and therefore bring into the object of their investigation also their tacit knowledge, emotions, moral and political convictions that cannot immedialy be rationalised in methodological prescriptions. However, there are still relevant sources of risk that need to be taken into account both when evaluating as well as when producing research:

1. The risk of producing misleading information, previously mentioned in the Bassetti Foundation web-site by the name of the principle of precaution. This includes also the conflict of interests that could arise in conjunction with the definition of issues and terms may arise especially when setting regulations concerned with the level and standards of health and safety.
2. The potentially restrictive effects of method on criticality, alias the first step towards a responsible choice on behalf of the researcher to produce an account which is 'truth'. A responsibility towards putting aside a predictable set of values, beliefs and ideologies and engage with an unknown world.

We discussed some of these highly controversial ideas with Prof. Nikolas Rose director of BIOS ,a multidisciplinary research centre analysing the practice and implications of developments in bioscience, biomedicine, biotechnology and society at the London School of Economics. As he elegantly put it:

'What biotechnology, genetics and technologies of information and communication have in common is that have been introduced without the possibility to predict what the medium to long term implications would be. No one though that these innovations would have advanced humanity and make available new sources of knowledge in the way the Internet did. However, no one thought that it would also help pornographers or be used to make public the sequencing of the human genome'.

And suggests that: 'For instance I am my collaborators at BIOS are researching on the economic drivers underlying the development of some of these technologies. Last year we explored the role of enhancement technology, this year we are looking at biotechnology and biocapital. The extent to which many of the developments in this field are being driven by tight speculative investments are at the centre of our discussions. One can think of the intersection between, on one hand, the political, and on the other the powerful economic drivers, but there is a demand side as well. 10 years ago the idea of having a kidney transplant was a rather unusual intervention, but now that it is possible, there is a general view that there is a world shortage of kidneys. Everybody almost feel they have a right to a kidney 'on demand'. And because there is a technological innovation that has made it possible, it also created a market and the general idea that the body is a set of replaceable parts. Therefore, we need to break down the areas of impact of biotechnologies, such as the use of biotechnology in industrial processes, biomedicine or the agricultural sector. Each of these areas poses new questions of interest about what should be considered legitimate science, not just any science, but science with the capital 'S'. What I would stress is that the governance of science influences the future very heavily and it is not surprising that every European government has set up huge task forces to work out the effects of the introduction of these technologies. There is clearly some wish, some endeavor to govern these technologies and the future of science.'

The challenges ahead

One perhaps should also reflect about what the challenges ahead will be, especially for those countries which do not invest enough in education and research and in how to improve the mechanisms of ethical accountability at the nexus between science and politics. Such responsibility involves improving the goals of the governance of technological innovation. As a consequence, one may ask how could it be possible to advance the objectives of the Lisbon strategy, which envisioned a raise of the resources available to science and education capping a 4-5% of the budget of the European Union? And especially if the ambitious objective of becoming one of the most progressive societies based on knowledge is to be reached? In this context one of the greatest challenges consists in developing the 'know how' necessary for discovery to become innovation, which requires a network of expertise able to produce new cohesive forms of knowledge, alias its actualisation which generally results from the intertwining of discovery with actuating power (Bassetti, 2003). But because the framework of reference is not any longer merely national, but increasingly transnational, the forces that need to be combined in order to achieve that are based, on one hand, on the development of an educational system open to learning and on the a skilful combination of national, regional and international expertise.

Hence, the relevant question here is 'how can science be part of the political process and yet separate from its Technology? A recently published book titled 'Nature's Experts: Science, Politics, and the Environment' by Stephen Bocking (2004) addressed a somehow similar question. Written by an environmental scientist, it addresses a theme of interest to all those that have a stake in the debate about the history of science and its future delineation. He explains an important point with an insightful quote from Dorothy Nelkin (which we reproduce below):

"As scientists debate the various sides of political issues, their involvement undermines the assumptions about the objectivity of science, and these are precisely the assumptions that have given experts their power as the neutral arbiter of truth".

However, something is missing from both Pielke's triangle and Booking's account, something that can the triangle a square: citizens and consumers living in the emerging knowledge society, which are redefining the cotours of the governance, risk acceptance and responsibility of the processes of governance of scientific and technological innovations. Over the Internet, the number and of sources available to evaluate the credibility of scientific research, its health risks and political impact has increased exponentially in recent years. Suggesting the need of a new maturity and a new sense of accountability on the side of anyone who becomes involved in the process of decision making that will affect the choices of civil society. Perhaps another danger resulting from the way in which the problem of science, politics and responsibility is framed with regards to the governance of innovation leads to the understanding that it can be fixed merely as administrative issue.

Increased awareness and capacity on the side of previously excluded sections of society, are now calling for a new and overt role in the way in which previously closed and relatively unaccountable decisions were taken. The opportunity of greater participation in the context of the knowledge society reinforces the need to focus our attention on the constitution of appropriate mechanisms that can promote a new ethic of (political) responsibility in the way in which decisions affecting the sphere of human life and health may be taken. This understanding of the complex relationship animating the 'be sidedness' (to use the expression suggested by Mario Castellaneta, a reader of this Blog) between science and society is indicative of an emergent new paradigm of knowledge production and validation.

In such process, science is not anymore closed and unaccountable (the ivory tower referred to by Bassetti in his article on 'New Science and New Politics'). Having said that and with reference to the issues that have been addressed by the previous articles, is thus necessary to make an important distinction between Science, Technology and Politics and their underlying objectives without generalising the occurrence of exceptions. However, in the traditional duality expressed by the principle of precaution and the principle of responsibility my fear is that, as Chrisanthi Avgerou of the London School of Economics puts it, the more we are preoccupied with perfecting particular principles of research legitimacy, the more we stifle the possibility for critical debate across diverse socio-cultural settings and disciplines. In other words, the reason why such perspective may be of distinct quality that it is not appropriate for advancing knowledge in society, but that they advance too well knowledge that serves unquestioned social ends that may be of dubious political and moral status.

Richard Feynman, Noble prize winner in 1956 for quantum physics and a pioneer in nanotechnology, supported the idea that it was absolutely coherent to be uncertain and scientific at the same time. The freedom of doubt is what he considered to be one of the greatest achievements of science and in that responsibility towards society he saw a close relationship with the fundamental principle of democracy. Nevertheless, this would need to take into account also the new security environment after the terrorist attacks both in New York and in London and the necessity to balance the appropriate provision of public support for research (an administrative matter) without transforming at the same time such openness and the public availability of results, into weapons which may lead to catastrophic acts of terrorism (a do-it-yourself nuclear weapon). However difficult and unpopular this may prove to achieve, one should nevertheless consider the fruits that can result form having scientific knowledge available in the public domain. Helga Nowotny, chairwoman of the European Research Advisory Board of the European Commission says that such new paradigm is 'socially distributed, application-oriented, trans-disciplinary and subject to multiple accountabilities'. This is a timely issue to discuss as one of the challenges ahead, considering the imminent launch of the new European Framework Programme.


Investment in science remains an important prerequisite to promote innovation. However, innovation brings into play new forms of dangers or risks that civil society should debate openly. Balancing the views, interests and values of all the participants to innovation is what legitimises also the knowledge required to influence its path. Acknowledging these dynamics leads us to suggest the inclusion of a certain element of criticality in future policy initiatives. Giving immediate priority to frame the discussion in the political domain and to find a political answer that is sometimes escaped.

If politics is considered as the locus of reconciliation of ethical and economic dilemmas, which resolves the dispute in terms of equity rather than efficiency it is not necessarily true that involvement of science means to look only or primarily upon issues of administrative efficiency. Should the decision of the right of the level of minimal health care assistance be a political decision or a scientific one? Should in this case science be called to express an opinion, or a judgement? Will this be enough to avoid a political struggle between such two different rationalities? However, ethical and political studies are still 'scientific', although not necessarily in the term implicit in the realm of technocracy. The latter can be considered as an attempt to rationalise and deliberate on issues which cannot be rationalised without an increasing sense of responsibility on the side of those who have the responsibility to govern innovation.

In conclusion, we have tried to shed some light in the processes animating the debate about science, politics, responsibility and the governance of technological innovation. A quote from Giuseppe Longo seems appropriate to conclude this essay, hoping that it will be the beginning of a constructive debate: 'in order to populate the market the technology does not wait any longer for science and its patents of legitimacy'. It is also worthwhile reminding that the universal social value of science and research consists also in its reflexivity. An inward look to the process of discovery itself and not just an investigation of the world of innovation and against the universally preconceived values of method, is essential in what may be considered good science and good research. In doing so we have highlighted that in nearly all circumstances the way in which the term science is used is misleading without a proper definition and therefore it is perhaps appropriate not to define the debate in terms of governance of science or of politics, since that is not what reflects the responsibility of such governance according to the Heideggerian definition of Technology.

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 7 March, 2006) --- Permalink ---