Science, technology and its accountability, for who?

Science, technology and its accountability

As a role of science has been getting more crucial for modern society, it’s accountability for general public has tended to be discussed more frequently and publically.  As that accountability contains several social aspects such as values and ethics, it has been difficult to be handled only by individual scientists.  Since they have not trained for assessing their own research from those social aspects, the national government has been expected to take a leading role in encouraging scientist’s accountability.

In their paper, Katz, Solomon, Mee and Lovel conducted an analytical approach for this issue by examining the series of attempt to gain public engagement in Australia.

In order to deepen the understanding of public engagement in term of nanotechnology, CSIRO conducted two open workshops, which is followed by research governance workshop participated by CSIRO scientists.

Stated concerns from public and scientists

From the second panel discussion and workshop held in Melbourne, the panel which represents lay public, scientist, governmental organization and media, issued several concerns, which vary from economic development to ethical issues.

In term of economic issues, the panel mainly concerned about a balance between industrial development and environmental issue, fairness for small business, governmental regulation and intellectual property issue.   Public engagement and control issues were also stated as crucial points, such as accountability of research, control or regulation of technology and chance to show opinion on decision-making moment.  Concerns for social aspects were also stated, such as ethical concerns, worry for military use and possibility of social divide caused by nanotechnology.

At the third phase of research, CSIRO scientists had workshop of research governance.  In respond for those concerns, the scientists showed wide variety of responds.  Some said social challenges could be mended by appropriate technological design.  The others said these concerns are already implemented in their research portfolio, or could be implemented.  Whilst, some of them support quite orthodox approach, which means improving themselves in term of acknowledging social responsibility and accountability, and looking for further chance to engage with lay public.

Although their research was focused on nanotechnology, these notions, the needs from lay public and responds of scientists, can be generalized in context of general science.

Accountability, what for?

Throughout the research, the authors have pointed out that an incentive for scientists for improving public engagement was unclear.  In other word, the scientists were not sure about why they should tell their work for lay public.  Apart from orthodox reasons, such as sharing enthusiasm or responsibility for tax payer, it has been difficult answer for them.  For some scientists, it has been just a mandatory, meanwhile, some answered that it has been good opportunity to improve their own understanding for their specialty in term of social aspect.

To sum up, research accountability is also crucial for scientists.  Those non-scientific considerations may not reflect on their achievement immediately, however, it enrich the background context of a research, more focus on practical needs, and give more robust foundation for their work.  In that means, Australian government should encourage public engagement.


Posted by Kohei,


Katz, E, Solomon, F, Mee, W and Lovel, R. 2009. Evolving scientific research governance in Australia: A case study of engaging interested publics in nanotechnology research. Public Understanding of Science 18(5): 531 545.


2 comments so far

  1. Belle Lyons on

    Thanks for your post.

    Since scientists are not trained for assessing their own research from social and moral perspectives, it makes sense to me that the government should take a leading role in encouraging scientist’s accountability and educating the public about nanotechnology. Regardless of who does it, this detachment between science and social/ethical issues as it relates to nanotechnology must be addressed before the technologies become too advanced.

    We typically overestimate of our capacity to predict and control technologies (particularly within complex and dynamic biological systems) – we’ve got a lot to think about when it comes to the moral and social dilemmas that will arise as nanotechnologies become more sophisticated.

    The public must be educated about moral and social issues surrounding nanotechnology. This is important as the development of nanotechnologies will significantly impact upon the way that we live our lives in the future – in terms of the value shifts that must occur to allow the widespread use of these technologies, and the change in the social fabric of society.

    Some of the controversial moral issues surrounding nanotechnology include construction of artificial organisms and genetic modification of human beings. The genetic modification of human beings sounds exciting to me – especially if it could stop the aging process at 25 and modify my metabolism so that I could eat junk all day long while still looking fabulous.

    Also, nanomedicine has the potential to change the social fabric of human societies. Imagine living an extra 50 years, or more? It would totally change our family norms and structures in ways that are hard to imagine. Maybe the norm will be to not leave school until were 30, get married at 50, and have kids at around 70. Alternatively if we keep breeding young, we’d end up with a heap more relatives. Imagine the social dynamics at a gathering with 6 generations of the same family!

    I could do with looking 25 forever, but I’ll pass on those extra relatives thanks….

  2. wangd05 on

    Hey Kohei, thanks for the post, it was an informative read, especially when my panel group discussed on the use of nanotechnology earlier this semester. I do agree with Belle that governments should take a leading role in encouraging scientist’s accountability and educating the public about nanotechnology. I would rather take credible information about nanotechnology from an expert rather than a layperson. However, therein lies that grey area where people wonder if the scientist / expert is credible enough to begin with. Perhaps collaboration between government and scientist (from privatized sectors) should be in place to educate and endorse the benefits and / or cons of using nanotechnology. This is a plausible idea, especially when the government is well-received by the public.

    We can’t always rely on the public receiving or assimilating well-meaning information about nanotechnology, there are other external influences from media (local / international), internet or even from close friends / relatives that can dissuade an individual from being pro-nanotechnology. Therefore, I think it is often a difficult position : to educate the public when the public can be hard to educate (?).

    Anyways, I think nanotechnology can be exceptionally brilliant. Just imagine the possible cures for mankind, and the possible solutions to current environmental problems. I might sound optimistic, but at least I’m informed !

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