Governing intent

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?


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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5 Responses to Governing intent

  1. Very thought provoking Jack.

    I don’t know whether or not we should govern purposes but they are important. The recent BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Dialogue (a definite emerging biotech) found five central questions that emerged for synthetic biology researchers:
    1. What is the purpose?
    2. Why do you want to do it?
    3. What are you going to gain from it?
    4. What else is it going to do?
    5. How do you know you are right?

    As the Dialogue’s report notes, these are questions that are focused on process and the motivations of those doing the science.

    One interpretation of this that, without specific products to focus on, people discussing a new emerging tech wanted to ensure that those doing the work were doing it for the ‘right’ reasons. As you say, “Norms are just as important as rules when the rules are still being written”, and people want to be sure that these norms are in tune with their own views and values.

    (BBSRC, Head of Engagement)

    Details of the dialogue at

  2. Steven Hill says:

    Good points as ever, Jack. I also think there is a tendency to rush for ‘science-based’ regulation as a form of governance without making the space for discussion about societal and ethical issues first. This closes down the debate too quickly and limits all discussion to issues of risk. I certainly think this happened for GM.

  3. Agree Stephen, though the trouble is, particularly with Nano, the fact that products come first, perhaps 5 years or more ahead of appropriate regulation is in itself a social and ethical issue. Hence the need for something more visible and useful in terms of ‘anticipatory governance’.

    In addition, not sure that it was just the over regulation of GM that allows more damaging crops to be grown without oversight. Just as much techno thrall, lock-in, and the general inability to look at so called solutions in the round, considering the pros and cons of other solutions alongside each other.

    • Jack Stilgoe says:

      Thanks Hilary, Steven and Patrick. Patrick, your point about the synthetic biology dialogue is interesting. This is a genuinely emerging technology, where neither the experts nor the public during those discussions would have felt able to envisage the possible futures Syn Bio might enable. So they are less interested in the destination and more interested in what the road looks like.

      • Jack Stilgoe says:

        I also meant to add that the reason the idea of governing intent is at the front of my mind is the recent conversations that have taken place within the Royal Society’s Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative. There, most of the participants agree that intentions matter, but disagree about how these might be governed. Some, especially in the US, regard ‘governance’ as regulation, or even prohibition. They need to be constantly reminded that governance is also what science funders do and what scientists do to themselves, through cultures and norms, to steer their actions.

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