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Science and Governance: the EU report on Science and Governance presented at FGB

by Redazione FGB [1], 1 February 2008

The Giannino Bassetti Foundation deals with the problem of innovation and specifically with the responsibility that should guide innovative processes.
Piero Bassetti defined innovation as the realisation of the improbable. "Improbable" refers to uncertainty, doubt and risk, things that are beyond our control and therefore require that we think twice about our responsibility. The sociologist of science Brian Wynne, speaking about the uncertainty of science, distinguishes between "risk" (the variables are known and the possibility of quantifying the probability exists), "uncertainty" (even with the essential variables known, it is impossible to define the results), "ignorance" (not only the data is not available but there is not even an understanding of the problem), and finally "indeterminacy" (which is co-produced by scientific and social forces).
Today, the guiding role of science vis-à-vis social and economic growth means that politics and rights have to regulate techno-science and its countless applications. The all-pervasive nature of science and technology means that government organs must have a specific consultancy structure (expert advisory groups and commissions etc.). National and international judicial systems have had to create specific norms to regulate the activity of techno-science: "the interplay between science and society, and science and public institutions" - writes the philosopher of law Mariachiara Tallacchini [2] - "is now so great as to deeply affect the structure and the fundamental dynamics of associated life, and to make it necessary to re-think the fundamental concepts of rights and politics".
The changes that have occurred within the relationship between science and society also challenge concepts such as rights, democracy and citizenship. Citizen participation in public decision making through classic tools, such as the referendum for example, cannot hold their own in the face of decisions that need to be taken in the scientific field: there is a need to operate a convergence between the notions of citizens' rights, new ways of governing science and a new idea of democracy. The recent analyses of the responsibility of science - which the Bassetti Foundation has been tackling for some time - contest an image of science still rooted in the collective imagination, that is of the "republic of science" described by Michael Polanyi in 1962 and of the democratic structure of this res publica. In the republic of science, scientists create a cohesive, self-regulated community in which the authority of the conscience and ethics in its practices are taken for granted. It is the validity of science itself that guarantees for the moral integrity of the scientists. It is actually this "intrinsic ethic" of the scientific community that - writes Tallacchini - "results in a lack of specific guarantees in the relationship between science and society, analogous to the one regulating the relationship between state and citizens". Hence the need, today, to reflect attentively upon the relationship between science and society.
As a response to this problem, the Italian edition of the report Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously [3] will be presented at the Bassetti Foundation on 15th February 2008 by professor Brian Wynne, Chairman of the expert group that produced the report, and professor Mariachiara Tallacchini, a law scholar and member of the expert group who translated the report into Italian (Scienza e società. La società europea della conoscenza presa sul serio, Rubbettino, 2008).

Taking EuropeanKnowledge Society Seriously Scienza e Governance
(Report of the Expert Group on Science and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research, European Commission)

The complexity of knowledge, the lack of or insufficiency of data and the impossibility of seeing the results in advance all feed the uncertainty of science. Within the folds of this uncertainty, where the scientific community display their internal splits and their different positions, the central theme of responsibility flows, and comes to the fore at various levels..
Firstly, at a scientific level: science has created risks that it has not known how to control and use, and that it has lost control of. Then, at a juridical level: the law has had to fill the gaps that the uncertainty of science has left open and this has made the work of juridical intervention particularly difficult. Confronted by qualitatively different forms of description and prevision, which line should be privileged and taken as the norm?
Overcoming an uncritical vision of scientific knowledge has meant elaborating new arguments, including juridical ones, that take into account the political nature of scientific questions - which is today clearer than ever. As "scientific certainty" subsides, responsibility becomes a question that is no longer shared by the members of the scientific community alone, but by the entire society.
In its 2001 White Paper on Governance, the European Commission pushed for the movement towards the democratization of the relationship between science and society, according to which citizens would be involved in decisions related to scientific knowledge. This, in order to better respond to the needs of society - in effect, the direct commissioner of science -; to give citizens the tools for direct participation to decision-making, thus raising the level of understanding of problems and aiding the pluralization of information. Also in this case the concept that lies at the heart of this reasoning is responsibility. Tallachini writes: "In the idea of ‘scientific citizenship' or of ‘expert citizen' one compounds the two instances of the integration between different types of knowledge and the re-distribution of the power of decision-making". The re-distribution of the power of decision-making also implies a re-distribution of responsibility: a plurality of actors become responsible for the process of understanding, and this requires, by consequence, the adoption of new instruments of control that are equally pluralistic.
Six years after the white paper on governance, with the report Science and Governance. Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously, the European Commission has gathered a group of experts that have highlighted three problems linked to European science and its governance: how to respond to the widespread problem of the lack of trust in science within civil society; how to implement the democracy and co-involvement of civil society and how to direct community choices regarding urgent challenges, such as climate change and sustainable development.
The presentation of the report organized by the Bassetti Foundation at its premises in Milan proposes to explore these themes in the light of the widespread perception of the need to rethink "knowledge society" in terms of responsible innovation.

Tallacchini M., Stato di scienza? Tecnoscienza, policy e diritto, in 'Federalismi.it', 16, settembre 2005.
Polanyi M., The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory, in 'Minerva', 1, 1962, pp. 54-74.
Wynne B., Uncertainty and Environmental Learning: Reconceiving Science and Policy in the Preventative Paradigm, in 'Global Environmental Change', June 1992, pp. 77-85.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] /it/pagine/2008/01/mariachiara_tallacchini.html
  3. 3] http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/document_library/pdf_06/european-knowledge-society_en.pdf
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Brian Wynne
Articles by:  Redazione FGB
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