The project deals, under a philosophical angle, with the problem of the governance of science in our contemporary democratic societies. Who should decide on the main orientations and priorities of scientific research? This issue has an epistemological dimension to the extent that the various possible answers presuppose, to be justified, particular conceptions of the nature of science, its modes of development and its aims. The first task of the project examines the validity of the philosophical presuppositions underlying the defense of the autonomy of science. The second task elaborates a contextualized view of its value and role. The third task, more exploratory, at the interface of philosophy of science, political philosophy and political sciences, aims at mapping out the principles of a democratized governance of science, and at exploring its possible practical forms.
Objectives and Scientific programme
The project has two main scientific objectives. The first aim is to develop a view of the value, role and aims of science, which takes into account various aspects of its current interactions with society, especially society’s expectations in terms of « useful » knowledge and ability to deliver neutral and impartial expertise necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. This « contextualized » view will open up the issue of which modes of governance of scientific research are legitimate and desirable in our societies, and make the case for their democratization. The second aim of the project is then to explore and evaluate possible forms of this democratization of the governance of science. Achieving this second aim will require working at the interface between philosophy of science, political philosophy and political sciences.
To achieve its two main scientific objectives, the scientific programme consists of three interdependent tasks. The first two tasks, which will be conducted in parallel, partake of philosophical analysis and will prepare the ground for the third task. This third task will be more exploratory, and also interdisciplinary, at the interface of philosophy of science, political philosophy and political sciences.
The diversification and the multiplication of decision-making bodies about science policies are today widely acknowledged. Such decisions are taken at the supranational level (in particular the European level), at the national level or at regional levels, and traditional (at least in France) modes of funding (such as recurrent funding at CNRS) now coexist with other modes of funding, especially those by call for research proposals. These evolutions and mutations, as important and significant as they are, should not mask a certain constancy in fundamental presuppositions underlying public funding of research, as regards who should get involved in the setting of research agenda: it is still largely admitted that people having scientific expertise should be the main actors in decision-making processes about science policies. Sure enough, other actors have started to play a role in setting research priorities – associations for the defense of the patients and certain NGOs – but their actual integration in the decision-making bodies, as well as their domain of intervention (often the biomedical domain) remain rather limited. And the same goes for experiments of public participation in science and technoscience projects, such as consensus conferences: they often take place after the main decisions as regards scientific priorities are taken and are very rarely fully integrated in the decisional procedures run by the institutions in charge of setting scientific priorities.
Consequently, issues of scientific policies remains by and large in the hands of a limited fraction of the citizens, namely scientists, be it directly (when some group of scientists are in charge of defining them) or indirectly (when they are consulted by political bodies). Citizens are not (or only marginally) involved in the definition of research priorities. By contrast with other domains of public policies (immigration policies or environmental policies), it is very notable that science policies are not really the object of democratic debates.
These traditional modes of governance of science may be challenged for several reasons. Widely acknowledged is the idea that we live today in what can be called an “Age of science”. A first reason being that many scientific developments have a considerable and unprecedented impact upon the individual and social life of every citizen. Manipulations of the genome of living organisms, nanotechnologies, mammal cloning, nuclear fusion, etc.: many current research programs have or will have consequences, sometimes very concrete, in the citizen’s daily life. A second reason being that in our “knowledge society”, science is considered as a crucial vector not only for economic prosperity, but also more generally, for improving our life conditions. All citizens are thus concerned and impacted by the developments of science, not to mention the fact that they pay for science (at least publicly funded science) via their taxes.
How then can one justify the fact that in our democratic societies, the vast majority of the citizens is left out of the decision-making processes concerning scientific research agendas? Does the necessity of scientific expertise in these matters exclude all forms of public participation?
Consider for instance the choice to invest massively in the human genome sequencing. If one could expect, for sure, an increase of basic knowledge in molecular biology, and a (still rather hypothetical) progress in gene therapy, one could hardly ignore other concrete consequences of this research program such as less funding for other less reductionist therapeutic approaches (funds are limited), and the development of genetic tests that can be used by employers and insurers. The issue here is not to argue in favor or against this choice of scientific priority, but to emphasize that it would have been worth balancing and publicly debating these various ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, given that all citizens are potentially concerned.
What, then, about the legitimacy of demand of autonomy for science? In contrast, is a direct political control of scientific research agenda more legitimate, given that political programs on the basis of which citizens vote do not include (or very marginally) specific propositions in the domain of science policies? None of these options seems viable anymore as attested by the growing tensions and resistances science stirs up in our societies. Freedom of scientific research faces the reticence of certain components of the society on topics such as cloning or GMOs, whose beneficial nature is contested. And it is also challenged by special-interest groups, who blame the scientific community for neglecting certain domains of research. As regards now the option of a direct political control of scientific research, the fear is that it would favor short-term research programs with predictable economic benefits, thereby impoverishing science.
A common worry underlies theses resistances: given its current modes of governance, it seems that the capacity of science to respond to the needs and expectations of the society is far from being optimal. We need to innovate by elaborating alternative principles of governance of science, so that science may better respond to the needs and expectations (both practical and epistemic) of the whole society, and not only reflect the interests of certain components of the society.