Science, Governance and Self-Understanding




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Science, Governance and Self-Understanding:

From Anthropocentricism to Ecocentrism?


Hugh Willmott

Cardiff Business School


Working draft. Please do not cite without permission.


Revised 22 December 2010


Introduction


`The activity of science now encompasses the management of irreducible uncertainties in knowledge and ethics, and the recognition of different legitimate perspectives and ways of knowing…As the political process now recognizes our responsibilities to future generations, to other species and indeed the global environment, science also expands the scope of its concerns’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1995: 160)


Science is widely held to speak authoritatively on behalf of humanity; and is therefore favoured as a mainstay of global governance. With regard to environmental problems, for example, it is widely assumed that scientific knowledge provides a reliable means of determining the resilience levels in nature-society interactions, and that it ensures the robustness of the techniques and technologies for operating within these limits, thereby facilitating a continuing process of modernization. Given the authority conferred upon science, it is remarkable how little attention has been given to science by students of governance.


The assessment of science offered in the opening quotation underscores its contemporary dominance and pervasiveness. It is noted that science now `encompasses’ the field of `ethics’ as well as `knowledge’. But it is also suggested that its very pervasiveness contributes to a heightened interest in `different legitimate perspectives and ways of knowing’ that pose a challenge to its preeminent authority. Finally, Funtowicz and Ravetz link this challenge to the embeddedness of scientific practice in `the political process’; and this is seen to `expand the scope [of science’s] concerns to include `responsibility to future generations, to other species…’. The reference to other species hints at a potential for scientists to re-orientate their practices by embracing a more ecocentric, and less anthropocentric, self-understanding.


A high value has been placed, in the modern era, upon the products and consequences of scientific activity, including its technological applications. These consequences have substantially shaped modernity and global development. Media of governance are intended to provide an effective way of avoiding and/or addressing threats posed to society by advances in scientific knowledge - such as those associated, for example, human embryology and fertilization but also in respect of climate change, DNA synthesis of viral genomes and nuclear proliferation. Accordingly, modern societies have developed a range of governance mechanisms - state, market and network – to encourage the pursuit of forms of scientific practice and also to delimit their scope. In this process, the anthropocentric orientation of modern science has been largely taken as given.


Yet, `science’1 is increasingly being challenged and problematized by doubts and uncertainties which place in question its pre-eminent authority and legitimacy (Nowatny, Pestre, Schmidt-Assmann, Schulze-Fielitz and Trute, 2005). Such doubts are intensified by increasing awareness of how scientific knowledge may be `misused’ – the `dual use’ dilemma (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2009). The institution(s) of science, and potentially the self-understanding of scientists, face, and are beginning to grapple with, fading public confidence in its salvational powers. There remains, nonetheless, a strong residue of belief that, when properly conducted, adequately funded and effectively protected from commercial pressures (see Leydersdorff and Etkowitz, 1996), science can provide authoritative knowledge of, and solutions to, contemporary problems of climate change, environmental degradation and so on. This belief is routinely affirmed by leading authorities who present science as neutral, impartial and the sole provider of rational solutions to these pressing global problems. In their presentations, the objectivity of science is seen to be underwritten by a faithful application of Scientific Method policed by peer refereeing of scientific claims. Any dissent from this view is dismissed as ignorant and/or irrational. From this standpoint, problems of environmental degradation and global warming - assuming that they are identified as problems at least for populations whose health and even existence is threatened by them, and not as naturally occurring developments - are conceived as `technical’ inasmuch that they are assumed to admit of solutions provided by knowledge derived from scientific research. The issue of governance is then understood to revolve around the question of how science is to be fully empowered through adequate funding and receiving protection from interference from government and corporate agencies. One of the few studies of scientists’ preparedness to reflect upon their self-understandings concluded that


`The overwhelming sense of interview participants was that reflection and reflective

learning is largely absent from the UK public dialogue network and related institutional contexts. In terms of learning from public dialogues, science and policy institutions were not seen to be listening and responding in potentially changing the ways that they frame and think about key issues. This includes a lack of reflection on their own assumptions and the social (and other) implications of emerging science and innovation’ (Chilvers, 2010: 35)


A rather different, more reflective account of science emerges from contemporary studies of scientific practice undertaken by philosophers, historians and sociologists who have cast doubt upon the credibility, or at least the completeness, of established representations of science as independent and therefore authoritative. As Shapin (2010: 391), underscoring this doubt, `What the modern scientist may have left as a basis of authority is a kind of independence and a resulting notion of integrity’ (emphasis added). Doubts about the congruence between the self-understanding of science as independent and the realities of scientific practice arise when, as Shapin puts it, `the enfolding of science into institutions of wealth-making and power-projecting makes that independence harder to recognise’ (ibid). The very success of science, he concludes, has created the `successor problem’ in the form of an institutionalized dependence upon science in modern society that is simultaneously reinforced and undermined by growing doubts about its practitioners’ claims to independence. While this presents a problem for scientists, it is more importantly `a problem in our modern order of things: what to believe, who to trust, what to do’ (ibid).


To date, very few scientists have registered the existence and profundity of this problem which centrally is one of the governance of science as it poses the question of how science is to be directed and which constituencies are to be involved in its direction. Few physical scientists have engaged in discussion of this question (the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS, is an exception – see http://www.ucsusa.org/about/history-of-accomplishments.html - is a notable exception). Scientists response to this question invariably assumes the inviolability of self-governance. Their inclination is to chant the mantra of Scientific Method and peer review as a way of exorcising what is diagnosed as public irrationality and ignorance that can be corrected by educating them (us) about the authority of science compared to other, lesser (irrational) forms of knowledge. It seems unlikely, however, that repeating this mantra will dispel growing public scepticism with regard to the unequivocal superiority as well as the reliability of scientific knowledge, and its capacity to solve pressing problems. Instead, the most potent effect of this chanting is to reinforce a self-understanding of science and scientific practice which denies how `scientific expertise is oftentimes pluralistic, divided, uncertain, contested and normative’ (Bäckstrand, 2004: 705). Instead of welcoming public scepticism as a stimulus for rethinking science and its governance, it is perceived as threat to the purity of scientific practice, and an occasion to reassert the principle of self-governance.


The focus of this paper is upon this neglected aspect of governance: the role of scientists’ self-understandings in the organization and legitimation of their practices. While scientists’ self-understandings are by no means definitive in shaping the definition, direction and development of scientific practices, they are significant because, in the absence of coercion and/or sufficient incentives2, a change in practice is resisted without a change in self-understanding. Scientists’ self-understandings are here conceived to be forged within particular, changing institutions: they are constructed, assimilated and transformed through interactions with diverse non-scientists as well as with fellow scientists (Shapin, 2008; Moore, 2008). It is in this sense that self-understandings are mutable. The scope and direction of scientific practices are shaped and changed by the social worlds within which they are enacted. Self-understandings may be developed through a personal and collective struggle, or they may be acquired with minimal reflection and/or deployed cynically for instrumental purposes3.


The relevance of a focus upon self-understandings can be briefly illustrated by posing the question: what are the consequences for scientific practice when scientists conceive of themselves and their activities from within an anthropocentric, human-centred perspective? When this standpoint is taken, nature is regarded as something external to humanity and is valued primarily, and perhaps only, harnessed and adapted for the fulfilment of human priorities (or, in practice, primarily for the elite of humanity). Contrast this with a self-understanding in which scientists are conceived as integral to a complex organic system in which human beings enjoy no intrinsic privilege. Does scientific practice have the same scope and direction when guided and governed by an anthropocentric notion of human beings as `masters of nature’ as it does when framed and governed by an ecocentric notion of science where metaphors of interdependence and mutuality prevail?


A focus upon self-understandings parallels the call for a decentred theory of governance in which, instead of privileging the role of logics or structures of governance, attention is directed to how, for example, scientists `adopt certain meanings and how dilemmas prompt them to modify’ (Bevir and Rhodes, 2001: 21) the traditions, comprising `theories, narratives, and associated practices’ (ibid: 22) from which these meanings are drawn. In doing so, governance is conceived `in terms of a political contest resting on competing webs of belief and to explain these beliefs by reference to traditions and dilemmas’ (ibid: 24). In the present discussion, the contest involves beliefs, or self-understandings, about science which are conceived to be rooted in particular traditions (e.g. anthrocentricism, ecocentricism). These traditions are understood to be prompted by dilemmas - with respect, for example, to species’ survival – but also to be endorsed and sustained by different - technocratic and civic - philosophies and processes of governance. When science is addressed as a social and institutional practice, its wider institutional governance is opened up to critical scrutiny. Scientific practice is disclosed as inescapably immanent, irrespective of what transcendental claims are attributed to science by its advocates, or in the name of its Method. Amongst the most important and problematical conditions of modern science are its anthropocentricism (and its androcentricism) – features that have been excavated and problematized by ecocentric and feminist perspectives,


The paper is organized in four substantive sections. The first section introduces the concept of governance, explores its relevance to the study of science and justifies a focus upon self-understandings as a neglected aspect of governance. The second section examines mainstream studies of the governance of science to show how they exclude consideration of scientists’ understandings of their practices beyond their disciplining by Scientific Method and peer review as guarantors of science’s objectivity. Consideration is then given to how two central aspects of the polity of science are significant for shaping and shifting scientists’ self-understandings. In the third section, this argument is developed by illustrating how the direction and form of science changes over time; and how its contingent formation suggests the possibility of further transformation. The final substantive section considers the emergence of highly complex phenomena, such as environmental degradation and climate change. Science is seen to be implicated in their creation as well as their detection but has been found wanting, at present, in its capacity to adequately understand, predict and control their manifestation. This difficulty potentially presents a challenge to scientists’ anthropocentric self-understanding which, in turn, may prompt the possibility of a shift from a technocratic to a civil form of governance.


Governance and Science


Usage of the term governance can be traced to the early 1960s (see Eels, 1960) and its study now covers a wide spectrum of topics using a variety of perspectives. `Governance’ has been described as an `empty signifier which, like democracy, is `receptive to diverse definitions’ (Ezzamel and Reed, 208: 601) and, indeed, it takes on distinctive meanings when adopted by scholars working in different `epistemic communities’ (ibid: 612). For researchers interested in science, the term governance has been invoked to signal the understanding that there is more to the regulation of science, than the constraining powers of state actors or government (Hirst, 2000). Attentiveness to governance explores how `rules of the game’ regulating fields of activity extend beyond and beneath state-centric structures and associated, formal modes of organization:


`Reconsidered in this way, the practices and relations inherent in different modes and mechanisms of governance are more appropriately viewed as norms, rules and discourses for dealing with the conflicting, and often incompatible, demands made by internal and external stakeholder groups embedded in highly diverse and pluralistic institutional environments’ As (Ezzamel and Reed,2008: 609)


Consideration of `norms, rules and discourses’ serves to foster an appreciation inter alia of how state institutions are embedded in civil society; and attention is also extended to the diverse and multi-layered ways in which spheres of activity are delimited and regulated. In this light, the existence, credibility and legitimacy of scientific practice is understood to be derived from a wider context of `stakeholder groups’ and, through these media, is established and maintained as a polity (Fuller, 2000). An attentiveness to governance invites us to develop a broader understanding of the shaping and interpreting the rules of the game that provide for the coordination of actions within and through diverse and interlinked hierarchical / market / network / community, etc. relations.


Studying Governance


Their variety of governance studies can be appreciated by sketching differences in their focus of attention and approach. At one end of a spectrum, managerial studies, sometimes described as `normative’4, embrace and advocate `governance’ as a complement to, or even as a substitute for, `government’. By streamlining or supplementing state-centric forms of regulation, non-state (private and voluntary) agencies and hybrid inter-organizational networks are identified and commended as means of improving control and/or efficiency (Stoker, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, critical studies place in question the intellectual coherence and/or moral defensibility of these governance media. Between these poles, a range of positions offer qualified support for forms of governance and/or articulate reservations about their claims and desirability.


Many analysts of governance seek to supplement an agenda set out by established studies of `government’; and most studies of governance are undertaken within and/or are directed towards, overtly political institutions. When extended to ostensibly non-political institutions, such as science, their focus has tended to remain upon media of governance which are assessed to strengthen or even replace more established structures of government with regard to .funding mechanisms (e.g. block grants v. project funding v. performance evaluation), organization (e.g. the degree of segmentation of research organizations; national and international collaborations) and so on. Such studies often revolve around the question of how scientists may best be governed to ensure that the value produced by innovation is not impeded by the increasingly organized and programmatic nature of scientific knowledge production. In these studies, there is rarely even passing consideration of the significance of processes of self-formation and self-understanding or their consequences. And yet, as Edwards and Schneider (2001: 7) have noted


`Formal governance is relatively unimportant in scientific culture. This is true because scientists generally belong to small social groups with strong and deeply entrenched (informal) norms…informal rules based on the everyday practices of scientific communities guide the bulk of the work (Collins and Punch, 1993; Gilbert and Mulkay, 1993; Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Merton, 1969)’


The `informal rules’ that guide the practices of scientists are undoubtedly important but they are necessarily forged and interpreted in the light of self-understandings which themselves are developed within `scientific culture’ , yet are irreducible to it.


Self-Understanding in Governance


Studies of governance rarely extend to an appreciation of the role of self-definition and self-understanding in the organization and reproduction of the formal and informal rules of the game. Perhaps a thinly veiled normative preference for a post-statist, if not anti-statist, mode of regulation leads influential students of `governance’ (e.g. Rhodes, 1996) to concentrate upon (hybrid) structures (e.g. `network governance’) rather than directing attention to messy practicalities and accountabilities5, although, in Rhodes’ case, his subsequent co-authored formulation of a decentred theory of governance (Bevir and Rhodes, 2001) suggests at least some broadening of approach. The neglect of self-understandings is disconcerting since the very plausibility and legitimacy of `games’ of governance depend, in part, upon the self-definition of the players. To be sure, players acquire and develop their self-understandings through their knowledge of, and participation in, the media of governance whose rules are subject to adaptation and regulatory reform. Yet, as du Gay (2007: 22; Ch 5) has noted, the particular sense of `personhood’, and associated identifications, acquired by human beings in their `passage through particular institutions’ – what are here conceived as integral to their `self-understandings’ is not insignificant in `regulating’ their practices.


To offer a rather trite example, how professional football players conduct themselves is contingent upon what it means to be a professional soccer player (committing `professional fouls’, for example) as well as upon rules that regulate the transfer of players, currently favoured systems of play, the increasing commercialization of the sport and so on. There is, arguably, no `essence’ of a professional player - no true, universal `professional’ or a transcendental set of rules equivalent to those attributed to Scientific Method. Instead, what it means to play football or to be a `professional’ – whether qua soccer player or scientist – develops and changes over time. It is within evolving institutional contexts - including the role and influence of trade associations, such as the Professional Footballers Association and the Royal Society - that particular players /scientists are identified as exemplars of (a shifting notion of) `professionalism’ and `excellence’ within particular areas of activity6. How these `professionals’ conduct themselves is informed by self-understandings that, in substantial part, are conditioned by how a particular game – of science or soccer - is organized, nationally and internationally. Conduct regarded as `professional’ or `exemplary’ is not unchanging as develops within specific social or institutional contexts. The everyday conduct of science / football is not plausibly reduced to an epiphenomena of what the formal rules of the game and/or the (hierarchical / market / network / community) structures of the practice stipulate or permit.


How governance is accomplished through `internal’ self-understandings and processes of self-regulation, as well as through `external’ regulations, protocols and incentives, as well as informal rules, can be illustrated by the more weighty example of the Global Compact. The United Nations’ Compact, as Barnett and Duvall (2005) initiated an effort to redefine the self-understanding of the leaders of multinational corporations as global citizens (see Edward and Willmott, 2008). The Compact has sought to redefine these leaders/corporations as having social responsibility for planetary stewardship, and not just responsibility for maximising returns to shareholders. It is of course relevant to acknowledge that such self-understandings (e.g. `corporate citizenship’) are, at best, only partially incorporated; and they are contested and eroded by other, well-established self-understandings (Knight and Smith, 2008; see also http://globalcompactcritics.blogspot.com/). Nonetheless, a necessary dose of scepticism should not displace an appreciation of how the Global Compact is an enabler of a prospective regime of governance that


`aspires to create a new kind of actor—the potentially "socially responsible corporation"—that may adhere to these best practices not because of the manipulation of incentives, but rather because of a new self-understanding. In other words, the discourse is intended to produce a new "social kind" that will be self-regulating and self-disciplining’ (Barnett and Duvall, 2005: 61, emphases added).


Attentiveness to the formation and reform of self-understanding resonates most closely with a small and generally marginalized set of studies, clustered at the critical end of the managerial-critical spectrum, that examine processes of `subjectification’ within regimes of governance. Through these processes `human beings come to relate to themselves [and to others] as persons of a certain sort’ (du Gay, 2007: 42); and, in doing so, they are seen to become charged with attendant aspirations and responsibilities. With regard to science, consideration of `subjectification’ tends to be limited to a focus found in managerialist studies upon the question of how moral virtue, in the form of dedication to scientific discipline (e.g. adherence to Method) can be restored or strengthened in the face of commercial pressures and the bureaucratization of scientific work. Comparatively little attention has been given to the formation and effects of self-understandings irrespective of their relevance for dedication to scientific discipline.

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