I spent Friday at another roundtable with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (see earlier post here). This time, they surrounded themselves with people to talk about governance. Too often, especially in relatively well-established areas such as biotechnology, governance is equated with regulation. I hope I got across the point that technologies emerge into what Martin Hajer calls an ‘institutional void‘ (pdf) – they run ahead of the structures that regulate them. It is therefore important to realise that the governance of emerging technologies is also done by funders, scientists and the research cultures that surround them. Norms are just as important as rules when the rules are still being written.
The Nuffield Council are restricting themselves to biotech. Compared to something like geoengineering, biotech seems quite familiar, and there is already a regulatory thicket around it. Within this thicket, much of the discussion has been around whether governments should regulate products or processes. GM enthusiasts argue that their products may be no different to products produced via conventional techniques, right down to the DNA sequence that defines them. So why should they be regulated differently? Broadly, Europe regulates processes, the US regulates products.
So the question is whether the processes of science should be legitimately opened up for public debate. Should policymakers only be interested in what plops out of the end of the pipe or should they worry about what’s in the pipe? Pragmatists would argue that processes are important because they allow regulators to deal with whole batches of things without having to worry about the effects of each individual thing in detail. And, from the other side, most people would probably agree that there are ethical questions involved if research uses animals, humans, tissue samples, stem cells etc, no matter what comes out. But process-based regulation can also have some perverse effects. With GM crops, for example, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment have pointed out (pdf) that because of the over-regulation of GM crops, other potentially more damaging crops are allowing to be grown without oversight.
With genuinely emerging technologies such as geoengineering, processes matter because products are unknown. But geoengineering research raises an additional governance challenge. One thing that defines geoengineering is its statement of intent. Genetic modification is an emerging technology defined by its particular intervention – the tweaking of a genome. Nanotech is an emerging technology that is defined by nothing in particular except size, which is often pretty uninteresting. The thing that defines geoengineering research, much of which looks awfully like regular climate science at first sight, is intent. The end goal is to change the climate, or to find out more about changing the climate. Just because a computer model, a lab study or a field trial is funded under a geoengineering grant, does it require different oversight from that labelled ‘climate science’?
So we have another layer for responsible innovation. As well as governing the products and processes of science, should we also govern its purposes?