Scientific Governance at the Ground Level

This workshop considers two related questions about the governance of emerging technologies. First, what challenges, limitations, pitfalls and successes emerge from current efforts? Second, how might those challenges be overcome or mitigated, perhaps with alternative models of governance?

It has become more-or-less accepted wisdom – at least in the academic circles of the philosophy, social studies and history of science – that non-epistemic values play a crucial, often inextricable, role in scientific practice. Setting evidential standards, designing experiments, picking which research to follow up or fund, deciding which evidential considerations to include in an analysis, and which techniques to use in data production, all often involve considerations and values which range far beyond what is traditionally considered within the bounds of (ideally) ‘value-free’ science.

But can this abstract recognition of the role of values in science be translated into actual governance, how might it do so and to what end?

We’ll understand ‘governance’ broadly: not only in terms of explicit regulations, but also various personal, inter-personal, and structural strategies, attitudes and rules which attempt to ensure the well-ordered and responsible development of science and technology. One crucial area where questions of value and governance play out involves emerging technologies.

Powerful New Scientific Capacities

In this arena, the development of powerful new scientific capacities have the potential to be transformative of human societies, and so it is crucial to ensure that their development is not only safe, but also just: such powerful science shouldn’t be allowed to be beholden to narrow interests or—perhaps worse—sleepwalk into problematic futures. And indeed governance itself should be in the business of delivering public goods, and not hindering innovation in problematic ways.

A common concern regarding governance is the so-called ‘service model’ of governance. Here, governance experts or procedures play a role in ticking relevant boxes as is required. Indeed, increasingly many grants require that provisions are made for responsible innovation.

The worry is that in such scenarios governance is tacked on to scientific practice within individual projects, as opposed to in fact playing an integral part in scientific governance at multiple levels. Of course, it may be that when all is said and done such service models operating at, say, the grant level can be effective, but it is worth at least pointing out that they appear to be in conflict with the close tie between practice and values discussed above.

Governance Within Scientific Practice

One strategy in light of such complaints, which we’ll focus on in this workshop, involves placing governance within scientific practice (broadly construed). This can involve (1) the inclusion of various focus or public groups at various stages of technological development (as in public discussion in stage-gating procedures); (2) having particular work surrounding values built into scientific protocols; (3) embedding ‘value-specialists’ within scientific procedures; (4) ‘self’ governance of various stripes. These potentially complementary approaches face particular questions and challenges, and it is the aim of this workshop to make some headway with them, and hopefully produce some kind of joint work (see below) regarding them.

Here is a first pass at some of the challenges. First, what are the values actually at stake here, and how should we conceive of them? We might want to consider governance in purely procedural terms, or perhaps something meatier is called for. Second, what kinds of governance strategies and interventions, at what levels and what stages of research, are the most effective and appropriate in particular contexts?

Considerations about, say, the treatment of animal subjects are decided by ethics boards prior to an investigation’s beginning: the four options above suggest that this is insufficient for some cases of scientific governance. Third, practicing scientists are often resistant to interference of their research along the lines we’re discussing. What are the sources of this resistance, what are their justifications, and how can they be taken seriously within governance? Fourth, when they are playing different roles, there is some reason to think that often governors and scientists have conflicting incentives. Where scientists (unsurprisingly) have incentives for scientific investigation to proceed, often regulators have incentives to block research – after all, this allows the regulation to actually come into effect and be seen to be working.

Issues of Accountability

It is probably a bad idea for regulators to have incentives for science to proceed, but it seems equally bad for such incentives to push in the other direction as well. Fifth, are there ways of telling whether governance is succeeding, and is itself fair? Are there, as it were, ways of governing regulation? This question concerns understanding the relevant responsibilities, levels of intervention, and issues of accountability involved in having meaningful integrated governance of scientific practice. Sixth, given that some such proposals involve potentially slowing scientific research down – and considering the difficulties of scientific careers such slow-downs can be disastrous both for individual’s lives but also whole research programs – how should we think about the costs/benefits of such procedures?

Finally, presumably there is no silver bullet for governance of emerging technologies. Different technologies, at different stages of development, might require different governance packages. It is also unclear whether the relationships between governance strategies are always complementary – there may be tradeoffs in effectiveness involved. And so, although mixed-strategies are an obvious approach to dealing with issues of scientific governance, developing and knowing when to adopt such mixtures is trickier than it may appear.

These are undoubtedly big, hard, questions – and not something we should expect to get fixed in two days! Rather, the aim of the two days is to collect a set of perspectives on questions like those above – we’re particularly interested in cases where things have gone well – and to lay the groundwork for future work. This could take the form of a joint statement, or perhaps a joint academic paper (perhaps a review article, or something more ambitious) which aims to systematize the purposes, challenges, and opportunities involved in scientific governance at the ground level.

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