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New Governance Tools for New Technologies? Innogen Workshop

June 8 2005

Venue: ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum

Organised by: Innogen

Catherine Lyall, July 2005


A recent workshop organised by the ESRC Innogen Centre and hosted by the Genomics Forum explored the issue of whether new technologies - such as genomics - require new tools of governance and new policy-making processes. The workshop examined the links between governance and the creation of regulatory frameworks and explored the extent to which the regulatory regime is being updated to take account of technological advances. The event was attended by researchers from across the ESRC Genomics Network, and other related programmes and centres, who are working on issues linked to the governance of the life sciences.

Key Themes

The enduring role of the state: It was argued (Professor Perri 6, College of Business, Law and Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University) that the widely bruited claims of a general decline in the power of state actors and of coercive regulation, supposedly due to globalisation and imperatives for the use of market-based instruments, are overstated and based either on too narrow a set of cases or else on too narrow a reading of the evidence. Instead, the really important trends are to do with the growing interdependence and combination of types of actors and types of policy instruments.

In European political science, `governance' signifies the ascendancy of societal networks over the state in contemporary attempts to create political order. Yet, Dr Sujatha Raman (IGBIS, University of Nottingham) argued that this literature ignores how social and political interests located in these networks emerge, and the nature of differences in the capacity to articulate particular claims. The subject of which issues are politicised, and how, is particularly relevant in the governance of technology.

But policy formation is only one of the three main components in the continuum of policy formation - policy implementation - policy evaluation - policy formation and Dr Saeed Parto (MERIT, University of Maastricht) suggested that, to fully understand why policy outcomes often fall significantly short of policy intentions we need to examine the institutions of governance that shape the policy process, examining the interplay between the policy process, governance, and institutions to articulate a framework for conducting institutionally sensitive policy analysis.

Refining participatory policy-making: The importance of increasing participation in decisions about science is widely accepted and the regulation of genomics is no exception. But Dr Robert Evans, (CESAGen, Cardiff School of Social Sciences) asked what this increased participation actually means. He discussed the ambiguous nature of the lay person and, in particular, the distinction between scientists and social movements who claim to speak for citizens and the citizens themselves. If scientists and social movements are all experts competing for public support and, precisely because they are experts, are neither independent nor neutral, then it follows that `disinterested' (i.e. unbiased) ordinary folk, cannot be represented by such groups.

Related to this was Dr John Walls' (School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia) analysis of the GM Nation? public debate. Within industry and parts of the policy-making community this debate was seen primarily to be a process of 'social intelligence gathering', aimed at winning over a broadly sceptical public to the potential benefits of GM crops and food. The government regarded this process as both a necessary effort to establish public legitimacy and trust over a highly controversial policy issue and to secure continued company R&D. Opponents from green and consumer groups saw the debate as an opportunity to reveal the extent of public resistance to the technology. Dr Walls concluded that the debate is best understood as forming part of an emerging meta-governance strategy by the British state which seeks to reconcile the sometimes bitter political conflicts over the appropriate roles of the market, government, consumer choice and social values in determining the pathways of new 'risky' technologies.

The challenges of multi-level governance: Perhaps unusually for a single area of scientific governance, human embryonic stem cell (HESC) science has produced politicisation and conflict right across the international, regional and national policy domains. Professor Brian Salter (Institute of Health, University of East Anglia) raised questions about whether there is a natural symbiosis between the ambitions of science, the promise of HESCs and the economics of their development or whether this relationship is in some sense politically constructed? A range of cultural values support, oppose or are indifferent to HESC science and these have to be politically negotiated by states and institutions with an interest in its promotion; resulting in new governance policies which constitute a measure of the changing balance of power in HESC science both within and, to an extent, between nation states.

Continuing this international governance theme, Adèle Langlois (ESRC Innogen Centre, The Open University) discussed the "genomics divide" - the fear that the health concerns of developed countries will take precedence over those of developing countries - which has led to calls for more effective governance of genomics at the global level. She suggested that one possibility for bridging this divide would be through implementation of existing UNESCO instruments containing articles on co-operation between developed and developing countries in knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Discussion Points

Are genomics technologies amenable to existing governance structures? To an extent this depends on society's expectations and standards. A key issue is how the prevailing public policy environment shapes the subsequent debate. We have seen a shift from scientific/economic governance to more social forms of governance but different discourses must still co-exist, for example: science-based, ethics-based, competitiveness-focused, risk vs. benefit approaches. There is also the possibility of different patterns of social governance emerging including: public consultation combined with implicitly coercive policy (such as the UK's competitiveness agenda); public as agents of innovation with a facilitative policy; or public as embracing technological citizenship with fewer roles for policy.

One possible benefit of this resulting complexity is that it can lead to a range of policy options and creative ambiguity which can enable policy-makers to engage differently with different groups. Moreover, the available tools of governance are rarely used alone but most frequently in combination; although tool choice is not necessarily a rational process but more often, in reality, a case of "muddling through".

However, the political sensitivity of genomics tends to demand a model of deterrence rather than self-regulation and illustrates the enduring capacity of the state to control and to frame debates about new technologies. In the life sciences, although the pool of the regulators and the regulated is relatively small, the cultural arena is huge. Ultimately, the successful governance of new technologies such as genomics depends on dialogical communications with a variety of requisite institutions and actors and on both preventing institutional polarisation and conciliating between these different actors and different goals.

About the Workshop

The workshop on "New Governance Tools for New Technologies?" was held at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, University of Edinburgh on 8 June 2005. It was organised by Dr Catherine Lyall and Angela McEwan of the ESRC Innogen Centre.,1371,en.t4.html