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Home > Focus > What's the social and ethical responsibility of basic science?

What's the social and ethical responsibility of basic science?

by Redazione FGB [1], 21 October 2008

Reflections from a debate at the 2008 Euroscience Open Forum

by Maximilian Fochler [2], Department of Social Studies of Science, University of Vienna

Science for a better life - the Euroscience Open Forum 2008
From July 18 to 22 2008 more than 4000 scientists, journalists, policy makers and other interested audiences convened in Barcelona for the third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) [3]. Modelled after the prestigious annual meetings of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [4] in the US, ESOF aims to present and debate the cutting-edge of European research. Its mission is to discuss leading research trends in the sciences, humanities and social sciences, as well as to scrutinize and possibly even influence the future of research and innovation in Europe. These goals are captured in ESOF 2008's motto "science for a better life" - a motto which also opens up space for social and ethical reflection. What is a better life, and who may define what "better" means, and in which contexts? And most of all, what is the responsibility of science itself to tackle these questions on the one hand, and for the changes its products, ideas and innovations spawn in society on the other?

What's the social and ethical responsibility of basic research? A Debate
The session I was fortunate to organize and chair set out to explore these questions, and to address them in the specific context of basic research. It brought together leading scholars both from the sciences, as well as from the interdisciplinary field of Social Studies of Science (STS). The speakers were Philip Campbell [5], the editor of Nature, Ulrike Felt [6], professor of Social Studies of Science at the University of Vienna, Giovanni Frazzetto [7], a young post-doctoral researcher both doing neuroscience at EMBL, and reflecting on its societal consequences as a Branco-Weiss-Fellow, Sheila Jasanoff [8], a leading STS-scholar and professor at Harvard University, Helga Nowotny [9], distinguished analyst of science-society relations and recently vice-president of the European Research Council, and Brian Wynne [10], professor at Lancaster University and director of the centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen).
The debate started from the observation that responsibility is becoming an ever more important issue in the interaction of science and society. On the one hand, science, its ideas and products, changes the societies we live in, in innumerable and fundamental ways. It has become so central to the contemporary way of life that many analysts use the term "knowledge society" to understand current changes in social structures. This enormous success of science and scientific knowledge on the other hand does not leave science itself untouched. The likely made use of scientific innovations as well as the their economic applicability are of growing importance, even in the realm of basic research, as these criteria acquire increasing prominence in the visions and expectations of research funders. What is the role of basic science, the institutions sustaining it, and of the individual basic scientist in reflecting these issues and in tackling issues of responsibility connected to the impact of science on society? From an observer's perspective, it seems that within the past decades, the spaces and formats in which the responsibility of science is debated, have multiplied. Ever larger segments of research practice are subject to formal ethical review and discussed in ethics committees, and citizen participation events have become a well-used practice in many national contexts. But does this multiplication of arenas amount to a better practice of dealing with the responsibility of basic science in society? And what role remains with the basic researchers in this context? These were the questions the session aimed at opening up.

What is basic science today, and how does it relate to responsibility?
To ask for the responsibility of basic science requires to scrutinize what defines basic research in relation to other forms of the human pursuit of knowledge, such as more applied forms of science. This is of special importance as many scholars agree that even in areas labelled as "basic" science, applicability and economic value are becoming ever more important issues.
In her statement, Helga Nowotny stressed the importance of curiosity as the main driving force in basic research. It is this curiosity, which activates the enormous potential of science and technology for society. At the same time, she stresses that curiosity is amoral, but not immoral. It is amoral because it strives to find things which are beyond current knowledge and possible even contemporary imagination, and hence may not anticipate what it will find. This is the strength of basic research and accounts for its creativity, but at the same time it is what renders this form of knowledge production potentially dangerous to society. The creative force of scientific curiosity, Nowotny argues, needs to be contained and tamed by society. The taming of scientific curiosity may proceed along three paths: an economic, an ethical and a democratic-participatory one. However modern democratic societies are faced with a dilemma: not to constrain scientific creativity too much to avoid loosing its benefits for society, while at the same time setting the boundaries necessary to protect society. This, she concluded, calls for careful and reflexive tradeoffs.
Brian Wynne argued that the societal context does not only tame scientific curiosity, it also frames it and substantially influences the directions taken in basic knowledge production. Historically, basic science has always been under the influence of imagined and expected applications, however from his view this influence has markedly increased as funders and policy makers more strongly stress the importance of the commercial usability of the knowledge produced. Curiosity is framed by imaginations of the future use of the knowledge it spawns in society. It is important to scrutinise and debate these imaginations, because they contain substantial social and ethical commitments, which may be concealed by a position which assumes that the selections and choices made in basic research are uninfluenced by societal logics and expectations. The latter assumption, Wynne stresses, encourages actors and institutions to deny responsibility for unanticipated (negative) consequences of innovation.
Sheila Jasanoff invited the session participants to scrutinise whether there is some intrinsic property of any scientific activity, which makes it either basic or applied. Using the US National Science Foundation as an example, she argued that there is no funding mechanism even for basic science, which does not also consider the possible benefits of the knowledge produced by society. At the same time, historical examples would show that Nobel Prizes for "basic research" may be won for ideas developed in an industrial context as well as for those originating from work within universities. Hence, she concluded, the label "basic" should not be seen as an essential characteristic of any kind of knowledge production, but rather as an institutional ideal which stresses the relative autonomy of some areas of science, which operate under different rules of accountability than others. The challenge in addressing the responsibility of basic science is to recognise that science is always framed by social institutions, and that these framings differ between national and cultural contexts. To be socially responsible, science needs to develop a more explicit awareness of the institutional, historical and cultural situatedness of its activities. Jasanoff argued that while science is generally deemed to be universal, it are only its technical dimensions which travel easily. Using the issue of GM-crops as an example she showed that the ethical dimensions of research and the way societies approach and handle innovation differ strongly between nations, such as between European countries and the US. To develop a more refined sense of social accountability, she concluded, scientists and others concerned need to recognise this diversity and develop a richer vocabulary to talk about science's role in society.

How can scientists and scientific institutions become more socially responsible?
The second part of the session asked for the responsibility of basic scientists themselves, and for ways in which both the individual scientist as well as scientific institutions may become more socially responsible.
In his initial statement Giovanni Frazzetto set out to sketch how societal issues may best be integrated into life science practice. In doing so, he drew on his personal experience as both a researcher working in neuroscience, as well as as a fellow of an interdisciplinary programme in which he reflects on the social and ethical dimensions of his work in particular, and of science in general. Frazzetto called for researchers to identify key questions in the relationship between their field of study and society, to consider these issues in their selection of topics and problems to work on, and to recognise and reflect on the limits of their experiments. Beyond this, he stressed that societal issues may best be incorporated in the context of sound collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, which may develop novel and more apt ways of dealing with societal problems. As a third issue, Frazzetto raised the issue of scientists' education and training. A "society-sensitive" ethos should be promoted among young scientists, and be rewarded in scientific career structures. Also, he called for scientific curricula to more strongly include societal issues and problems.
Philip Campbell started his contribution with a plea for a more careful use of language in the interaction between the social and natural sciences. From his point of view, while many natural scientists would substantially agree with what had been said by previous speakers about the social contextualisation of knowledge production, most of them would disagree with some of the linguistic forms in which it had been put. He warned of unnecessarily alienating scientists by drawing on too provocative language. Concerning the responsibility of basic scientists, Campbell argued that they should study and report the phenomena and mechanisms of the natural world with impartiality, integrity and critical engagement with their peers, and support processes that sustain the validation and integrity of scientific insights. He related this statement to the increase of scientific misconduct, which may be related to the growing pressure to deliver results at increasing speed. In those areas where their research has implications beyond science, he called for scientists to engage with the public, and enhance the precautionary consideration of their science and its impacts. However, scientists would need to do so despite serious disincentives, because these activities are not valued by the current career evaluations structures within science.
Drawing on her research experience, Ulrike Felt offered three theses on how the issue of responsibility is dealt with in the life sciences. Her first argument was that often responsibility is lost in "translation" as the spaces where responsibility is dealt with, such as ethical review committees, multiply. As the handling of responsibility is formalised and made explicit in these places and by these mechanisms, Felt argued, very often responsibility as an issue disappears from the actual research practice - as it is "outsourced" to and considered to have been dealt with in formal procedures. This however does not strengthen and deepen reflexivity and responsibility, it rather impoverishes and flattens how issues of responsibility are dealt with and discussed in the actual places where research takes place. Felt's second thesis addressed the role of promises as "objects" of responsibility. In line with previous speakers, she analysed how visions of future potentials spawned by science and technology as well as the potential futures going along with them are becoming ever more important resources for scientific argumentation, such as in grant writing.  However, these promises, she argued, also need to be dealt with responsibly. As a third thesis, Felt stated that rapid, interdisciplinary and multi-sited innovation processes need new mechanisms of considering and dealing with responsibility. "Once-and-for-ever" regulations and solutions would be impossible in such complex systems. Rather, more process-oriented forms of addressing issues of responsibility are needed.

Innovation, Responsibility and Basic Science: Beyond entrenched categories
The discussions at the session "What's the ethical and social responsibility of basic scientists?" strongly showed that addressing this question is of vital importance for wider debates on how contemporary societies may best govern processes of innovation and their ethical and social implications. It also strongly pointed to the fact that to do so in a fruitful way, entrenched categories such as that of basic research will need to be opened-up and re-thought in the light of the changes both science and society are currently undergoing. Of course, to such an effort a three-and-a-half-hour academic session may only be a miniscule contribution, even though it may hopefully trigger similar exchanges and discussions which again take up these questions, and scrutinise which sciences we may need for which kinds of better lives.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.univie.ac.at/virusss/staff/7/
  3. 3] http://www.esof2008.org
  4. 4] http://www.aaas.org/
  5. 5] http://www.iop.org/Membership/Profiles/page_29527.html
  6. 6] http://www.univie.ac.at/virusss/staff/1/
  7. 7] http://www.lse.ac.uk/people/g.frazzetto@lse.ac.uk/
  8. 8] http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/sheila-jasanoff
  9. 9] http://www.helga-nowotny.eu/
  10. 10] http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/faculty/profiles/Brian-Wynne/Sociology/
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Maximilian Fochler


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