On Identifying plausibility claims and deliberative public policy

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On Identifying plausibility claims and deliberative public policy
  On Identifying Plausibility and Deliberative Public Policy Commentary on: ‘‘Negotiating Plausibility: Intervening in theFuture of Nanotechnology’’ Rene´ Von Schomberg Received: 27 August 2009/Accepted: 14 July 2011/Published online: 30 August 2011   Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011 Abstract  The identification of plausible epistemic approaches in science as well as thesocial problem definitions with which scientists implicitly work is essential for the qualityof a deliberative public policy. While responding to the Nanofutures project, I will reflecton the essential elements of such a policy. Keywords  Deliberation    Public policy    Nanotechnology    PlausibilityThe Nanofutures project of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona StateUniversity (CNS-ASU), which Cynthia Selin frames in her paper in terms of ‘‘negotiatingplausibility,’’ marks a considerable step forward in efforts to address technologicaldevelopments in a timely and responsible manner (Selin 2011, this issue). Indeed, there areever more diverse, often contradictory—yet all plausible—sets of technological optionsassociated with a science base surrounded by controversy. Particular developments in thenanosciences add to the already well-known cases of this kind, ranging from climatechange and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the health effects of endocrinedisruptors and the intake of cocktails of pesticide residues. Selin’s paper brings up animportant overall-issue: how to make transparent the decisions to be made, and to do so inthe context of anticipatory governance. Identifying the plausibility of particular epistemicapproaches underlying scientific controversy, precedes establishing the plausibility of suchapproaches within scientific and public discourse on which Selin focuses. The qualityof democratic deliberation is dependent of whether we adequately identify plausible epi-stemic approaches before it may become associated with particular public and stake-holder’s views. Dr. Rene´ von Schomberg is based at the European Commission, Directorate General for Research. Theviews expressed here are those of the author and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating anofficial position of the European Commission.R. Von Schomberg ( & )European Commission, DG Research, Office SDME 3/22, 1049 Brussels, Belgiume-mail: Rene.VonSchomberg@ec.europa.eu  1 3 Sci Eng Ethics (2011) 17:739–742DOI 10.1007/s11948-011-9305-z  Identifying Plausibility One can distinguish, within the thought tradition of philosopher Charles Sander Peirce theplausibility of knowledge claims from the predictability of individual statements in thecontext of scientific discourse (Von Schomberg 1993). For instance, epistemic discussionsin science can be characterized as discussions triggered by controversies arising from theacquisition of new scientific knowledge, whereby scientific methods and the fundamentalunderstanding of the nature of the subject matter often become subject to dispute them-selves (Von Schomberg 1993). In such cases, the authorities within scientific disciplinesare mutually challenged in terms of which discipline can claim to offer the best solution tothe problem in question. Recent examples of epistemic discussions in science include thedebates between molecular biologists and ecologists on the risks of GMO’s, the debate onclimate change as either being induced by human interventions or as caused by naturalcycles, and the debate between K. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley on the plausibility of molecular nanotechnology and engineering (Drexler 2003; Smalley 2003). Typically, epistemic discussions induce public debate long before any scientific closureon the issue is to be expected and provide a significant challenge for developing reasonablepublic policy. Which group of scientists should policy makers believe and should endorse?Plausible, epistemic approaches on the acquisition of knowledge in science are associatedwith problem-definitions, which in turn frame (although, often, only implicitly) policyapproaches. Unidentified and unacknowledged epistemic debate can result in unbalancedpublic policy: the until recently not uncommon ‘‘wait and see’’ character of public policiesof nation states on climate change, or the concentration on the promises and blessings of allkinds of new technologies provide examples whereby public policy takes sides prematurelyin a scientific debate that is still unfolding.It is therefore of utmost importance to be able to identify such epistemic discourses andknowledge gaps within the various plausible options on the table in order to be able to havea more robust outlook on potential technological solutions—and in order to keep open thepossibility for alternative developments. The CNS-ASU Nanofutures project is a contri-bution towards the possibility that alternative developments might remain in sight forpossible public policy responses and towards enabling democratic choices at early stagesof technological development. However, the use of ‘‘naı¨ve product scenes’’ (which are, asSelin outlines them, ‘‘short vignettes that describe in technical detail, much like technicalsales literature, a nano-enabled product of the future,’’) may not overcome the often toonarrowly conceived problem definition scientists implicitly work with. Social scientistscould do some heuristic work by spelling out these problem definitions. For example, the‘‘product scene’’ of a disease detector (a device which would enable disease detectionsbefore symptoms emerge) is probably based on a problem definition that it is a medicalimperative that any ‘‘disease’’  needs  to be identified, irrespective of available treatment andirrespective of whether the individual in question would define himself or herself as ill. Asa result this problem definition may sidetrack preventive approaches based on adoptingparticulars lifestyles. Moreover, problem definitions scientists implicitly work with oftencorrespond to a centuries old, general standard list of fundamental human needs (whichrepresent overarching problem definitions) to which new technologies are supposed toprovide answers in a given future: food and energy supply, human health, security and, forhalf a century, also ‘‘the environment.’’ The case of nanotechnology is in no way different,especially if one considers the public reasons for its funding. Because of its enabling anddiverse character, it is suggested by scientists that it might open a future with very efficient 740 R. Von Schomberg  1 3  solar energy, nanorobots cleaning blood vessels, water sanitation solutions for the ‘‘thirdworld,’’ etc.The link between options, which may only look plausible at a particular stage of development in science and technology, and for particular ways of social problem solving,is a perplexing one. For instance, it seems obvious that the world food problem is prin-cipally not a technological problem but a political-economic distribution problem. Yet, theincrease of land use for biofuels may well cause a situation whereby a political-economicsolution could become increasingly less likely, if not impossible, before it ever arrives at aworld policy level in an historic time period in which this type of solution still  is  an option.Putting the public’s attention—and with its hopes and/or fears—primarily on an acceler-ated form of innovation by technological means, is therefore irresponsible.In order to help mitigate this, the methodology used in the Nanofuture project couldbenefit from a prior analysis of potential relationships between types of plausible tech-nological pathways and particular social problem-definitions, rather than starting with‘‘naı¨ve product scenes,’’ and thereby methodologically ignoring the underlying problemdefinitions. It is also important to make an analysis of the links between technologicalpathways and social problem definitions and how they may well receive the support of particular stakeholders or boost particular ideologies within public policies. A process of ‘‘negotiating plausibility’’ eventually means reaching consensus on such problem defini-tions. Minimally, policy makers could help to avoid continually funding developmentswhich are later shown to be fictious; but more constructively, policy makers could createdeliberative forms of decision making on the problem definitions themselves and placethem in a wider perspective. Deliberative Public Policy The Nanofutures project adopts both a foresight 1 and a deliberative approach, which iscommendable. It is, however, important to note that the reason for this approach is notlimited to the normative rationale of a more democratic and transparent decision makingprocess. The deliberative foresight approach can also improve the quality of the decisionmaking process and help to identify knowledge gaps for which one would need to go back to science. A part of this potential ‘‘quality’’ gain gets lost when one limits deliberation tostakeholder or public deliberation, although these constitute necessary components. Animmediate normative deficiency of stakeholder deliberation is that the involved actors donot necessarily include the interests of non-included actors [see the work by Michiel vanOudheusden (2011), and David Guston (2011), this issue]. That said, foresight exercisesthat envision the possible consequences of a particular technology need to be progressivelyembedded in public policy in order to make a real qualitative step forward.Public policy cannot rely on stakeholder and or public deliberation as such, sinceepistemic debate in science is immediately mirrored by stakeholder and public dissent insociety. Policy makers are equally challenged by dissent in science as by dissent amongstakeholders and the public. If policy makers deal unreflexively with public debate inducedby epistemic debate, an improper politicising effect inevitably occurs and translates into anirrational struggle concerning the ‘‘right’’ data and the ‘‘most trustful and authoritativescientists’’ in the political arena. Interest groups can pick and choose the experts which 1 Interactive foresight approaches include participatory methods to ‘‘think, debate and shape’’ the future andis fed by prospective analysis.On Identifying Plausibility and Deliberative Public Policy 741  1 3  share their political objectives. A functional deliberative approach, apart from public andstakeholder deliberation, includes a deliberative extension of the science-policy interface.Such an interface institutionalises particular deliberation based on normative filters such asnotions of proportionality and precaution (or as is required in the European Union,implementation of the precautionary principle in policy frameworks), various forms of impact analysis, such as sustainability impacts, cost-benefit analysis, environmental policyimpact analysis, etc., the application of particular consensual norms or prioritisation of norms (for instance that health and environment takes precedence over economic con-siderations) and the application of normative standards for product acceptability. Thesenormative filters are in themselves results of public and policy deliberation and enableconsensual decision making at the public policy level. Although democratic societies havethese deliberative filters in place, they need to be consciously applied and be subject topublic monitoring. Currently there is a procedural gap, especially, when it comes toidentification of knowledge gaps and the assessment of the quality of the availableknowledge. A deliberative form of ‘‘knowledge assessment’’ at the science-policy interfaceis needed to facilitate a qualified knowledge input (Von Schomberg et al. 2005; VonSchomberg 2007).At the same time, policymakers have to ensure that science policies are consistent withother public policies: the challenge is not just to focus on the conditions for good andcredible science but to make knowledge production, dissemination and use a key factor forvirtually all public policy goals. So, how about a couple more Nanofutures projects? References Drexler, E. (2003). Open letter to Richard Smalley.  Chemical and Engineering News, 81 , 38–39.Selin, C. (2011). Negotiating plausibility: Intervening in the future of nanotechnology.  Science and Engi-neering Ethics, 17   (this issue).Smalley, R. (2003). Smalley responds.  Chemical and Engineering News, 81 , 39–42.Van Oudheusden, M. (2011). Questioning ‘Participation’: A critical appraisal of its conceptualization in aflemish participatory technology assessment.  Science and Engineering Ethics, 17  (3), (this issue).Von Schomberg, R. (1993). Controversies and political decision making. In R. Von Schomberg (Ed.), Science, politics and morality. Scientific uncertainty and decision making . Dordrecht: Kluwer.Von Schomberg, R. (2007).  From the ethics of technology towards the ethics of knowledge policy and assessment  . Working document from the European Commission services. Brussels January. Available:http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society under e-library, responsible governance.Von Schomberg, R., Pereira, A. G., & Funtowicz, S. (2005).  Deliberating foresight knowledge for policyand knowledge assessment  . Working document from the European Commission services, Brussels,November. Available: http://cordis.europa.eu/foresight/working.htm.742 R. Von Schomberg  1 3
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