I am a researcher at University, currently as “Postdoctoral Research Fellow” at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan. I am working on a project entitled “Ethical and Social Implications of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in Taiwan”. Many people are not very familiar with this kind of research. Therefore, I’d like to explain a little more about it.
My research interests are situated between the cornerstones (blue boxes) “Science and Technology”, “Philosophy” and “Society”.
I understand “Science and Technology” (S&T) as a social, academic and political endeavour that aims at facilitating and supporting the development of artifacts and infrastructures that have the potential to enrich and increase the quality of life. This ranges from “basic research”, applied sciences and engineering to product development and industrial production, covering all enactors and drivers of technological progress. “Philosophy“, from my point of view, is the attempt to reflect on metaphysical, epistemological and ontological questions on the one hand, and to elaborate principles and reasoning strategies for what is “good” and “right” on the other hand. I understand Philosophy as a down-to-earth and highly practical approach rather than a purely intellectual and academic discipline. The “Society” is both target group and study object of my research: the evaluation of the impact of S&T on the society and the societal background of scientific and technological activity on the one hand, and the exploitation of these findings for a socially healthy and sound progress. While “Science” and “Philosophy” can be understood as academic fields, “society” is a term that describes an entity of our lifeworld. On purpose I chose not to call it “Sociology” since I have no educational background in this field, whereas I can call myself “Scientist” (PhD in Chemistry/Nanosciences) and “Ethicist” (Master in Applied Ethics).
How are these three fields connected (green boxes)? Accompanying technological progress (including “science” as its foundation) with research on societal and environmental implications is a matter of “Technology Assessment” (TA). Historically, it developed from a rather technological or economic tool (e.g. analysing the components of a technological artefact concerning their probability to malfunction and risking a loss of the object or harm for someone or something) into a political and sociological tool that aims at taking the “larger picture” of technological development into account. It was highly promoted and extended by the academic field of “Science, Technology and Society” (STS), a sociological discipline. An important precondition is the acceptance of social constructivism as predominant driver of development, instead of technological determinism. The social constructivist approach allows to intervene any development process and guide it into the “right” direction. If progress was deterministic it would be a meaningless endeavour.
In the “Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics” we find this definition:
“Technology Assessment (TA) is a scientific interactive and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology.“
Let me explain it a little more detailed. The “object” that TA is working on is “science and technology”. This includes all parts of the development chain, from design and planning via research, fabrication, product development, marketing and sales to consumption, application, and finally disposal and/or recycling. TA understands itself as “accompanying research on societal aspects” of S&T, which include ethical and also legal aspects (all summarized as “ELSI”). Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is an academic discipline that is devoted to scientific methodologies and procedures. Institutional TA can be found at universities or in independent research facilities as well as in the form of “offices” that perform professional TA for governments (e.g. the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag, Büro für Technikfolgenbewertung beim Deutschen Bundestag) or corporations as a kind of science consulting. Bringing together expertise from various fields such as science, industry, politics, social sciences, Philosophy and jurisprudence, its nature is highly interdisciplinary. It is often highlighted that TA is “communicative” because the generation of orientational knowledge necessarily needs exchange of information among experts, a solution-oriented debate and the communication of conclusions, strategies and/or recommendations to the relevant stakeholders, decision-makers and – in some cases – the general public. The public is both a stakeholder and a target group: Representatives of public interest groups participate in TA processes and debates (e.g. patient groups in medical topics or environmental activists in projects with potential environmental impact); and at the same time the whole effort is undertaken in order to facilitate a socially sound and healthy development. The ultimate goal is the contribution to a sustainable development of society and its environment by creating a knowledge and insight base for efficient governance and policy-making. One extreme viewpoint would be that TA blocks innovation by influencing the decision-making with doubtful concerns and conservative fear-mongering. The other extreme would then be to take TA as an acceptance creator: Convincing the public and politicians that a new technology (e.g. Genetics or Nanotechnology) has great potential benefits, and creating a positive image of this technology in order to unleash its full potential. Certainly, TA is neither of this. From a more balanced point of view, TA aims at serving as an “early warning” against possible side-effects and risks of S&T development on the one hand, and at recognizing potentials and benefits of new technologies and exploring strategies to optimally harvest chances on the other hand.
The role of Philosophy in this approach is mostly manifested as “Ethics“. It means the “study of what is good and/or right” and has a tradition that dates back to the Ancient Greek Philosophers in Europe and Confucius, Laozi and Buddha (as the most prominent representatives) in Asia (6th century BC). It is useful to distinguish descriptive ethics (the study of what certain people or societies believed in certain times, their value systems and worldviews), prescriptive ethics (the “core” of Ethics, elaborating the normative rules we call “morals”) and “meta ethics” (the “ethics of ethics”, reflections on purpose and performance of Ethics). In recent years a new boom of ethics could be observed under the umbrella term “Applied Ethics” (or sometimes “Practical Ethics”). Most prominent examples in this field are bioethics, medical ethics, research ethics, business ethics, profession ethics, media ethics and political ethics.The abovementioned aspects of modern TA approaches such as identifying risks and other problematic concerns, defining what are “benefits” and for whom, classifying and weighing arguments and values, and foreseeing in which way certain decisions might conflict with particular moral values, require a reasonable and strong normative framework within which debates can be held or decisions can be made. In this respect ethics is a fundamental and crucial element of modern TA concepts such as participatory TA, constructive TA or Parliamentary TA. The role of Ethics in a TA debate is primarily the moderation of the interdisciplinary debate and the identification of argumentation lines, fallacies, contradictions (and similarities), logic or formal mistakes, etc. Different stakeholders speak “different languages” that are coloured and shaped by their respective discipline and professional environment (e.g. when a scientist speaks of “freedom” he might mean something different than the lawyer speaking of “freedom”). An ethicist sorts and interprets the arguments according to the established ethical principles (e.g. deontology, consequentialism, contractarianism, virtue ethics, etc.). Ideally, after a debate in which all viewpoints could be exchanged and discussed, a conclusion can be derived on the basis of a set of values that the group agreed upon. TA doesn’t provide stakeholders and decision-makers with recommendations like “Do A to achieve B.”, but with arguments of the form “If you consider doing A, take into account that B might occur which affects a value C in a certain way.”. The value C can be characterized by one or more of these ethical dimensions, for example principles of justice, responsibility, autonomy, freedom, equality, security, health, etc., the action A is one of the elements in the development chain from scientific research via product development and marketing, regulation and policy-making up to application and consumption. The possible effect B that might occur is either a risk or, when supposed to be “positive”, a benefit. Again, the input from normative sciences (Ethics) is necessary for identifying those risks and benefits by compiling the values that determine if an effect is rather a risk or a benefit.
With the narrower but still wide frame of these areas of S&T research we can go further into detail. I regard my research as a contribution to S&T-related governance and policy-making, providing “orientational knowledge” that helps decision-makers to reflect the important matters of the decisions they are responsible for on a solid knowledge base. A term that is often stressed in this case is “sustainability“. I promote a holistic idea of sustainability that includes not only economic and societal stability and wealth, but also environmental health and global balance. Modern S&T activities have, in many ways, a global character. Not only are the enactors of scientific and technological progress internationally connected in networks and collaborations, but many of the wanted and unwanted effects of technology impact the entire globe rather than a locally confined area of it. This also gives TA and the reflection on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) a highly intercultural character. Different cultures with different legal systems and different worldviews and value systems might come to different evaluations of risks and benefits, set different priorities in ethical conflicts, or require different measures when defining the implications of “sustainability”.
Here – and this is the central theme of my research interest (red circle) – the interculturality aspect takes a significant turn: I believe that there is no (one) “global” solution for the conflicts and problems that go along with the development of S&T under the paradigm of uncertainty and post-positivism. Instead, it is important to look into the social and cultural specificities of the particular cultural realm. Embedding political decision-making on S&T-related issues, fed by TA and related knowledge sources, into the context of worldviews, mentalities and the “social reality” of a particular “society” (e.g. a nation, or a union of nations like the EU) can contribute positively to the goal of sustainability. The principles and ideas that are exploited for the ethical evaluation of human attitude, behaviour and activity (we can also say: the metaphysical foundations of morality) vary from culture to culture with the “Western” (European, North American) one as the predominant and the “Asian” as the second most prominent. Currently, the “non-western world” is confronted with both the effects of (characteristically western) S&T progress and their (also predominantly western) political and legal frameworks. However, the values and worldviews that underlie governance principles as well as laws and regulations – in some but not all cases – collide with different value settings in those non-western countries. Culturally specific ethical and societal foundations and their application in S&T policy surely facilitate a more sustainable development than the inconsiderate copy of methodologies, principles, guidelines, etc. of another culture.
I’d like to specify my research interests further by outlining my particular competences and expertise (purple boxes). The scientific field that I am most familiar with is Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies since I did (lab) research in that field (nanostructured surface patterning by soft lithography). I also feel familiar with closely related fields such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, and energy-related matters. In the field of “Applied Ethics” I focus on science ethics and more society-focused technology ethics, but also medical ethics and bioethics if required. My contribution to TA comes from the side of accompanying ELSI studies rather than the “technical” sociological methodology. The cultural realm that I know most of and that I currently focus on is East and South-East Asia, in particular Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan (“Confucian societies”) and those influenced by Buddhism. Therefore, I acquired knowledge in Buddhist Ethics, its foundations and applications. As pointed out before, I put a focus on the specificities of particular cultures in a global comparison of cultural realms. This is an endeavour of “comparative philosophy” that analyses schools of thought and sets them into perspective to others, by this enabling the international and intercultural communication of knowledge, insights and ideas.