Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously

mardi 4 décembre 2007


Report of the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research, European Commission, 2007

This report is the product of an expert working group acting under mandate from the European Commission Directorate General for Research (DG RTD), on the topic of European science and governance.

Ulrike Felt (rapporteur)
Brian Wynne (chairman)
Members of the Expert group: Michel Callon, Maria Eduarda Gonçalves, Sheila Jasanoff, Maria Jepsen, Pierre-Benoît Joly, Zdenek Konopasek, Stefan May, Claudia Neubauer, Arie Rip, Karen Siune, Andy Stirling, Mariachiara Tallacchini


  • The ‘Problem’: Public Unease with Science?

Perhaps the most widely recognised indicator of public unease concerns reactions to issues at the
intersection of ‘science’ (including science-based technologies) and ‘risk’. The public is thought to
fear science because scientific innovations entail risk. Both science and risk, however, are ambiguous objects. It is frequently assumed in policy circles that the meanings of both for citizens must be the same as for experts, but that assumption is, in our view, itself a key element in generating ‘public unease’. The widespread sense of unease – sometimes expressed as ‘mistrust of’ or ‘alienation from’ science – must be seen in broader perspective. We conclude indeed that there is no general, indiscriminate public disaffection with nor fear of ‘science’. Instead, there is selective disaffection in particular fields of science, amidst wider areas of acceptance – even enthusiasm.
In seeking to understand these complex processes, we recognise that institutional practices in science and technology are tacitly shaped and framed by deeper social values and interests. These include:

– changing expectations concerning science and governance as Europe moves from a single economic market to a more political union;
– important political-economic and other changes taking place in relation to science over the last two decades – moving from science as ‘Independent Republic’ to science as servant of innovation and ‘the knowledge-economy’;
– impacts of the increasing commercialisation of science in particular areas affecting public trust,
credibility and senses of ‘unease’;
– shifting, ambiguous and often unexamined ways in which science and expert judgment feed into
governance, innovation, and policy.
In order to fulfil our mandate properly, it was necessary to engage with these institutional and social dimensions of European science and governance. This called for two levels of analysis and, eventually, conclusions: (1) to pose a series of quite general and far-reaching questions about the deeply ingrained assumptions and meanings that have come to shape the proliferating field of science and governance; and (2) to review issues in specific policy domains, such as risk and precaution, ethics, and public participation. We believe that the resulting discussion addresses fundamental aspects of social experience that lie at the centre of public unease with science in Europe, and which policy making relating to science, innovation, and technology cannot ignore.

  • From Risk-Governance to Innovation-Governance

European policy encompasses two principal roles for science: informing innovation-oriented research; and protection-oriented analysis. This duality reflects the familiar distinction between ‘governance of science’ (R&D policy, increasingly defined to be for innovation) and ‘science for governance’ (e.g., risk and regulation). STS research has found, however, that this distinction is no longer tenable in simple terms: what are typically defined as public concerns over ‘risk’, for example, are also animated by public concerns over innovation. In Chapter 2, therefore, we take innovation as the starting point for our review. This emphasis parallels highlevel policy interest under the EU’s 2000 Lisbon Agenda, which includes the commitment to use scientific research to build the most competitive global knowledge-economy by 2010. As science-based innovations are generated at an ever-greater pace, so areas of conflict and controversy attract anxious attention in policy making. On this stage the EU public has become an especially prominent actor, with what are thought to be innate and indiscriminate aversions to innovation, science and technology. Sidelined in this script, however, are manifold ways in everyday European life where science and technology are implicitly trusted, taken-for-granted, depended-on, and enthusiastically embraced by European publics . Ignored, too, are the active, and intensifying roles of European non-governmental actors in producing S&T, both for enhanced productivity and welfare and for use in governance. An intrinsically ‘mistrusting’, ‘risk-averse’ European public for science is a serious mischaracterization.
An important conclusion of this report highlighted in Chapter 2, but reiterated throughout, is that steps should be taken away from the present narrow and exclusive understanding of innovation towards recognising more socially distributed, autonomous and diverse collective forms of enterprise. This promotion of diverse civic ‘knowledge-abilities’ would perhaps be the most effective single commitment in helping address legitimate public concerns about Europe as a democratic knowledge-society, able to hold its own distinctive place in a properly-grounded global knowledge-economy.
In Chapter 3, our analysis shows how public misgivings over the purposes and interests behind
innovations are often misunderstood as if they are concerns about safety as defined by regulatory
science and expertise. Thus, public hesitation over the directions or contexts for innovation are typically interpreted as misperceptions of probabilities of harm that experts have concluded are acceptably small. Yet public concerns tend to focus not only on the narrow prediction of probabilities, but also on neglected or unknown (thus unpredicted) effects on society, and the institutional incapacity to deal with such effects. Indeed, the tendency to collapse these normative dimensions into technical assessments of ‘risk perception’, and to dismiss public concerns as irrational, is itself a major source of concern. Only when these problems are recognised does it become possible to address more effectively the sources of public concerns, namely inadequacies in the governance of innovation itself. Following this logic, a promising response lies in treating risk and uncertainty with greater scientific rigour and credibility. Consequently, in Chapter 3, we also outline a series of concrete measures by means of which aspects of uncertainty and ambiguity might be dealt with more systematically.

  • Learning Normative Deliberation

Both Chapter 3 (on risk) and Chapter 4 (on ethics) describe how European policy making on science and technology often inadvertently suppresses full-fledged expression of normative questions, political values and democratic aspirations. In both areas, this occurs most centrally through the assumption that expert discovery can reveal objective truths, which then determine proper policy, and that democratic input is valid only after factual truths have been revealed. This institutional focus on post-innovation, ‘downstream’ or output questions as the only ones of interest to publics marginalises legitimate democratic concerns about the inputs (such as imagined social purposes, needs, benefits and priorities) that drive innovation research in the first place.
An important change in the governance of innovation would be strategic development of improved
European institutional capacity to deliberate and resolve normative questions concerning the prior shaping of science and innovation: over their directions as well as their scale and speed. Put simply, we recommend the introduction of structured ways of appraising the projected benefits of innovation. This means, as discussed in Chapters 4 and 5, a shift from expert-dominated to more open deliberative science-informed institutions on ethics, risk and innovation.

  • Science, Citizens and Sustainability: Promoting Civic Engagement

Intensified EU commitments in areas of environmental sustainability, such as climate change, food safety and the precautionary principle, bring with them the understandable concern that publics should be able to respond to compelling scientific insights and urgent associated policy prescriptions. Radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, will not be effected by centralised state policies or new technologies alone, but will also require a multitide of diverse and distributed public actions.
Our documentation of the nature of public unease over science, holds important implications for policy making in this area. By directly addressing the sources of public apathy and alienation, we also point toward ways of reviving the sense of public agency that is required to overcome present inertia. Here a major conclusion of our report is that responsibility to deliver public authority is too-heavily invested in science by politics, as if science could ever reveal the unambiguous ‘natural’ limits of ‘safe’ societal behaviours for complex processes in which we are now aware of our cumulative interventions.

  • Master-Narratives and Imaginaries of Science and Society

Our analysis raises recurrent questions about the imagined futures or ‘imaginaries’ shaping, and shaped by, European science and technology. As this report shows, all of the key reference points in science and governance are variously the objects of collective imagination: social priorities, purposes and outcomes in steering research (Chapter 2); misgivings concerning the directions, governance, and consequences of innovation (Chapter 3); ethical issues in research and application (Chapter 4); publics and their concerns and capacities (Chapter 5); and expectations concerning social learning and adaptation to innovation (Chapter 6). We therefore devote Chapter 7 to imaginaries relating to science and governance and the master-narratives of policy that reflect and sustain these projected collective futures. We conclude that master-narratives are the cultural vehicles through which ideas of progress are linked to S&T in particular ways. These are not
‘merely’ stories or fictions. They are an important part of the cultural and institutional fabric, of taken-forgranted aspects of social order. We emphasise the interwoven, mutually-ordering character of such masternarratives with the materialities of social and institutional relations and of technosocial commitments and trajectories. We observe that, in the science and governance domain, these narratives and the imaginaries they support urgently need to be subjected to more critical, open reflection, especially in the light of the global economic, scientific and political changes besetting early 21st century Europe.

  • Conclusions

Our conclusions reflect the two-tiered nature of our analysis. In Chapter 8, we first outline a number of important conceptual observations, which we hope will help foster sustained debate and deliberation on matters of science and governance. We then offer a series of more practical recommendations, not only for policy but more broadly for relations between science and society.
In the end, there are no simple answers to the pressing and apparently contradictory demands placed
on European science and governance. Global economic imperatives to pursue science-led innovation as quickly and efficiently as possible conflict with the inevitable frictions and demands of democratic governance. In response, we suggest that the main guide lies in trusting Europe’s rich democratic and scientific traditions. It is in the realisation of diversity and multiplicity, and in the robust and distributed character of publics, their capacities and imaginations, that we may justly conceive robust and sustainable pathways of technoscientific development.
In the perceived pressing need to encourage innovation, democratic governance has become dislocated in ways that cannot be remedied by technical methods and tools alone. Policy making should not stop at simple or mechanical solutions; it should address the complex issues of science and governance honestly, thoroughly, patiently and with humility. Only then will European policy take ‘knowledge society’ seriously – and fulfill its abundant promise.


You can find the entire report here.