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Home > Newsletter > Issue no. 5 - 2004

Issue no. 5 - 2004

by Redazione FGB [1], 11 December 2004

This autumn the Fondazione Bassetti site has seen the development of the collaborative writing initiative we have christened Collaborate, the publication of articles and observations on the subject of GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnologies and Robotics) Technologies and the results of the "Public Participation and the Governance of Innovation" project (promoted by Lombardy Region in collaboration with Irer, the Bassetti Foundation and Observa).

"We have no choice but to work hard to apply these quickening technologies to advance our human values, despite what often appears to be a lack of consensus on what those values should be". In a sense, this comment by Raymond Kurzweil summarises in a nutshell the debate on the different visions of the future that started with Bill Joy's concerns and was developed in Collaborate (see previous Diary). Due to end at Christmas 2004 (readers' contributions are still coming in), Collaborate gave rise in the latest article ("Al di là della mancanza di consenso sui valori" -- Beyond the lack of consensus on values) to a question that underlies many of the topics addressed in the site: how, given the increasingly rapid pace of technological innovation (the scope of which we have not yet fully grasped), are we to take decisions on our future that are an expression of democratic policies: policies based, therefore, on consensus?

Might the fact of going "beyond the lack of consensus on values" perhaps be a necessity created by the need to take politically responsible decisions on the governance of innovation? To quote the article in Collaborate: "let's leave this question as it stands, with the eternal disagreement between those who believe that political choices need, essentially, to be based on ethical values of principle and those who consider that in the decisions to be taken, respecting a consensus-based procedure is in itself the 'primary value'".

The steps we need to take to achieve a truly participatory approach to policy provided the field of study for the "Public Participation and Governance of Innovation" project. The presentation of the results also took the form of a seminar entitled "Decision-making processes and democracy: ways of involving the social actors and citizens", which took place at the Foundation in November. Visitors to the site can view some pictures from the discussion day in the Topics pages for October and November, along with the presentation of the study and the seminar.

The issue of citizens' involvement in the dialogue with experts, stakeholders and institutions is one of the areas where we can find the highest number of new developments with respect to the relationship between science and society. Massimiano Bucchi's article "Innovazione tecnoscientifica e cittadini: il dibattito in Giappone" (Techno-Scientific innovation and citizens: the debate in Japan) provides a taster of the debate currently taking place in Japan. Bucchi provides an overview of the way in which different structures (associations, institutes, universities) are addressing the problem of young people's declining interest in scientific careers: "The substantial public -- and even greater private -- investment in research and innovation, the strategic importance attributed by institutions and enterprises to sectors such as the agro-food biotechnologies to reduce the country's dependence on food imports, and the growing lack of interest in scientific careers on the part of the new generations, are working to fuel an interest in issues linked to dialogue and the involvement of citizens".

Alongside "Collaborate", some (nearly all in English) of the articles published in the Topics section over the last few months are intended to provide a snapshot of the state of the debate on nanotechnologies by bringing together references to other sites and documents, thanks in part to an initial observation by a visitor to the site: Dr. Omar Ganz, who works in Canada for a private company operating in new materials.

Dr. Ganz's contribution points to the mix between business and technoscience which, having led to an acceleration in investment and production, has forged ahead of any possible and satisfactory evaluation of the risks involved.

The debate on nanotechnologies brings us to the terms "prevention" and "responsibility", concepts which explain the degree to which the re-insurance companies feel directly involved and wish to play a part in governing the phenomenon: see the documents drawn up by Swiss Re, ample sections of which were carried in the October and November Topics pages.

"Prevention" and "responsibility" are also the key words in the exchange by Giuseppe O. Longo and Giuseppe Belleri, who discussed the subject from the specific perspective of the medical field (Topics, August).

The following are three excerpts from Belleri's article "La prevenzione in medicina": "Although the predictability of the evolution of physical phenomena has been placed in question as a result of chaos theory, the idea of prevention in medicine continues to have a great impact and to generate just as great a degree of social expectation"; "The term prevention envelops a whole range of meanings and practices, which makes the concept multi-faceted to say the least, if not down downright fuzzy"; "I feel slightly uneasy about the emphasis laid by Jonas and other bioethicists on the principle and ethical imperative of responsibility".

Longo replies in the article entitled "La responsabilità è uno stratagemma per il funzionamento della società" (Responsibility is a stratagem for the functioning of society), which develops Belleri's argument and leads on to further considerations: "There is, in short, a great and perhaps unbridgeable gap between 'high' (specialist or erudite) discoveries and their 'low' (cultural) implications, especially as the transfer effected -- often but not always with great goodwill -- by 'popularisers', needs to accept compromises: rigour in particular needs to be sacrificed, in part, to comprehensibility, dryness to persuasiveness, precision to colour, etc".

The difficulties encountered in popularising innovative discoveries and modes of thinking, and in training people to communicate them, emerge again in Tommaso Correale Santacroce's interview with Roberto Panzarani (also published in English: see September and October's Topics) on the questions that might emerge from an evaluation of "intangible assets". Here are some excerpts from the interview: "Although we are in a post-industrial society our economic and management outlook is still very backward and anchored to a vision, rhythm and pace that are typical of industry. Essentially, our mental capacity has not kept pace with reality but our 'abstract' vision, which remains outside the time of reality, still exerts a strong influence on us and causes us to miss important opportunities"; "Although I think [...] that with great difficulty, and without too many illusions, people are reacting and seeking greater authenticity. It is as though even those people who are most poorly equipped culturally had had enough of the greed of the market. And as a result, the disaffection that we are finding with advertising and the models it proposes are starting to be 'productive' in a human sense". (Panzarani).

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