Governance of Science

views updated


Scientific research is a human activity governed by human choice. Governance is exercised at many levels, from the individual scientist deciding how to design an experiment or interpret and report data, to scientific organizations that advocate research funding, to government bureaucrats allocating resources among various projects or programs, to elected representatives establishing budgetary and programmatic priorities, and citizens lobbying to support (or oppose) a particular type of research or technology. Because the consequences of science so powerfully affect the constitution and evolution of society, appropriate governance mechanisms are a key ethical issue for democratic society.

A Republic of Science?

In an influential and powerfully argued paper titled "The Republic of Science, Its Political and Economic Theory" (1962), Michael Polanyi made the case that science was best understood as an autonomous, self-governing activity. Scientists were best positioned not only to understand how to conduct their own research, but also to determine the appropriate directions and levels of effort for new investigations. Likened to the invisible hand of the economic marketplace, Polanyi portrayed the governance of science as an emergent consequence of a continual confrontation between an open community of researchers carrying out unconstrained inquiry and nature itself. Interference with this process would lead only to the automatic and inevitable diminution of the ability of science both to advance knowledge and to benefit society.

Polanyi's argument was provoked by attempts in the Soviet Union to subjugate certain scientific disciplines (notably agriculture and genetics) to Marxist dogma, and efforts in England to tie public research agendas more directly to social needs (Polanyi 1964). It also reflected the intellectual conviction that successful scientific endeavor demanded adherence to a clear set of behavioral norms, collectively characterized as "organized skepticism," that were shared by the scientific community as a whole, and which were the only appropriate constraints on the governance of scientific inquiry (Merton 1942).

The practical embodiment of these ideas was articulated by Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. Bush argued, in the seminal policy tract Science, the Endless Frontier (1945), that while the public interest would be advanced by a robust, publicly supported science enterprise, the governance of that enterprise was best left entirely in the hands of scientists.

Yet this view, at least in its most extreme form, was explicitly rejected by politicians who believed that no publicly supported enterprise should be fully shielded from democratic accountability (Kevles 1987). Moreover the tremendous expansion of publicly funded research and development enterprises in the United States and other developed nations since the middle of the twentieth century has been accomplished through a variety of political means, in response to a variety of external pressures (notably, the Cold War, but also societal concerns about health, economic performance, and the environment). The details of this political history utterly vitiate any notion of science advancing according to its own lights, and governed according to its own rules (Greenberg 1967, 2001). Thus, while it is certainly the case that the conduct of science is significantly governed by norms and practices that are internal to the research system itself, the more important point is that directions and velocity of scientific advance reflect a multitude of factors, many of which are external to science itself (Sarewitz 1996, Kitcher 2001).

Yet the power of Polanyi's position remains strongly in evidence to this day, in the rhetoric used to defend the scientific enterprise from the influence of politics, and in the attitudes of a U.S. public that continues to view science largely as an ungovernable and ungoverned activity whose benefits to society are at once inevitable and unpredictable. For example, National Science Foundation (NSF) survey data consistently show exceptionally strong public support for the statement: "Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the Federal Government" (National Science Foundation, ch. 7).

Documents promoting particular avenues of publicly funded science do so not by invoking the right and obligation of a democratic polity to choose the kind of science it will have, but by repeating what are essentially metaphysical arguments about the autonomous progress of science and its automatic connection to social benefit (Sarewitz 1996). Indeed it is fair to say that a sort of schizophrenia exists between the reality of a science and technology enterprise that is highly governed by decisions made at many levels of society, and the rhetoric of public discourse that perpetuates the illusion of an autonomous, internally governed Republic of Science (see, for example, U.S. House Science Committee 1998). This tension is deeply problematic because, concealed by the illusion, is the diverse array of human beings, working in diverse institutions, and ranging from scientists in laboratories to legislators casting votes and corporate executives determining market strategies, that in fact do govern the enterprise by making choices every day about what science to do and how to do it. The persistent notion that science is ungoverned or self-governed, that is, shields from scrutiny those who actually govern.

Political Reality

Nor do different types of research activities—embodied, for example, in the axiomatic taxonomy of unguided basic research, applied research, and development—carry implications about levels or appropriateness of governance. While Polanyi and Bush before him were centrally concerned with an idealized notion of basic research, the politics of science have made no such distinctions. The advance of basic biomedical research has ridden such political campaigns as the war on cancer (which was initially much opposed by medical researchers), while such pure fields as subatomic physics were justified in practical terms of the Cold War or economic competitiveness. The Republic of Science has, at one time or another, systematically failed to pursue research relevant to vast areas of socially important inquiry, such as diseases characteristic of poor people and regions, and alternative (nonhydrocarbon and nonnuclear) sources of energy. Conversely political action, motivated by interest groups rather than scientists, has been responsible for moving scientific priorities toward areas that had been explicitly avoided by the Republic of Science, for example, research on women's health, and on alternative (non-Western) medicine.

Even the norms and practices of science itself are subject to external governance. Most obviously, the rights of human subjects who participate in scientific experiments are protected by external mechanisms ranging from the Nuremberg Code (a response to Nazi Abuses) and the Helsinki Declaration to decentralized Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) operating in U.S. universities and laboratories (Woodward 1999). These governance mechanisms dictate, for example, that human subjects can participate in experiments only if they have given prior informed consent, a condition that sharply limits the types of science that may be conducted on humans. Additionally, partly in response to political activism that highlighted instances of unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel, use of animals in research, regulations, norms and practices have progressively evolved in the United States since the 1960s to both reduce the use of, and suffering by, animals in science.

Scientific practice is governed in other arenas as well; for example, national security concerns have dictated where and how certain types of science are conducted, and how scientists can behave in and outside the laboratory. In response to fears of biopiracy, a growing number of nations have passed laws that prohibit foreign scientists from collecting biological samples. The overall point is that, as a societal activity, science is necessarily, appropriately, and unavoidably governed by society. The scientific community, similar to other interest groups, reactively opposes new governance structures, but the scientific enterprise as a whole has demonstrated itself to be remarkably resilient and productive under a wide variety of governance regimes, provided that such regimes do not seek to influence or control the actual results of scientific research (Sarewitz 2003).

Governing the Genome

Some of the most far reaching questions of scientific governance in the early twenty-first century are those associated with human genomics. These questions can only partly be laid at the door of the ongoing debates over abortion and the moral status of embryos. With science already able to intervene in reproductive processes (for example, screening for genetic attributes ranging from sex to particular diseases), and on the verge of a capacity to engineer both individual humans and human germ lines (Stock 2003), profound and complex ethical questions emerge whose resolution may strongly influence future directions of both science and of society (Fukuyama 2002, Wolbring 2003). In most developed countries, these questions are sufficiently conspicuous to command the close attention of government leaders and citizens alike (for example, U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both convened advisory panels on bioethics), and sufficiently troubling to legitimate the possibility that some lines of scientific endeavor, such as those that could lead to human cloning or manipulation of the human germ-line, should simply not be pursued.

Opposition to a stricter governance of genomics research relies on three lines of argument: first the need to protect freedom of inquiry from societal interference; second the loss of potential social benefits (for instance, enhanced medical treatments); and third the likelihood that even if one country decides to prohibit or restrict a given line of research, others will surely decide to move ahead at full speed.

The first two arguments have little practical validity. Inquiry is never entirely free, and while science surely should be protected from inappropriate societal interference, the definition of what constitutes appropriate governance is constantly being renegotiated within society. Similarly choices about what science will be supported by society are continually being made in the public and private sectors, and any such choices entail opportunity costs. There is no reason to believe that the organization of scientific inquiry at any given time will yield optimal results for society.

The third argument is ethically troublesome, but difficult to dismiss in practice. While nations may decide to forego areas of research for moral reasons, the global science enterprise is so institutionally, sectorally, and geographically diverse that uniform compliance with any particular governance decision is likely to be impossible. Despite a fairly broad, global consensus against reproductive cloning, for example, it is inevitable that humans will be cloned at some point simply because the state of the science will allow it to be accomplished. Similarly the vast commercial potential for a wide variety of genetic enhancement and germline interventions is likely to be attractive enough to ensure that they will be aggressively pursued somewhere. Of course this likelihood neither justifies participation in such research, nor implies that restraint is without value. For example, the choice not to engage in some lines of research may allow particular nations or cultures to protect cherished values, and could influence choices made by other nations in the more distant future. Moreover, by slowing the advance of science in some areas (just as progress toward reproductive cloning has been slowed), society affords itself more time to develop effective principles and regulations for governance of such unprecedented innovations.

Modulation, not Control

Thus while science is, and will remain, a highly governed activity, this governance should not be confused with control. Rather it is a process by which the momentum and direction of scientific advance are subject to some degree of modulation via human decision making. Particular governance decisions may (or may not) be wise, may (or may not) reflect a commitment to the common good, and so on. The point of this entry is simply to explain that such decisions cannot and therefore should not be avoided. As science acquires the capacity to reengineer humanity itself, the choice to slow down, or orient this capacity in particular directions while avoiding others, remains open, but the balance among the attraction of commercial opportunities, the prerogatives claimed on behalf of the Republic of Science, and ethical concerns about the appropriate limits of science remain to be negotiated.


SEE ALSO Atlantis, Old and New; Poliical Economy of Science and Technology;Political Risk Assessment.


Bush, Vannevar. (1945). Science the Endless Frontier. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Also available from The seminal science policy document of the twentieth century.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2002). Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Conservative political theorist who argues that the implications of biotechnology demand to be regulated.

Greenberg, Daniel S. (1967). The Politics of Pure Science. New York: New American Library.

Greenberg, Daniel S. (2001). Science, Money, and Politics. Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Along with his earlier book, provides detailed chronicles of the political realities that underlies the "purity" of science.

Kevles, Daniel J. (1987). The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kitcher, Philip (2001). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Elegant treatment of the role of human choice in determining the structure of scientific inquiry.

Merton, Robert K. (1942). "The Normative Structure of Science." Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1: 115–126. Classic discussion of the internal cultural norms of science.

National Science Foundation. (2004). "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding." In Science and Engineering Indicators. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. Also available from Comprehensive compilation of data about the scientific enterprise.

Polanyi, Michael. (1962). "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory." Minerva 1(1): 54–73. Classic statement of the argument for scientific autonomy.

Polanyi, Michael. (1964). "Background and Prospect." In Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarewitz, Daniel. (1996). Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sarewitz, Daniel. (2003). "Science and Happiness." In Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, eds. Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, and Christina Desser. Covelo, CA: Island Press.

Stock, Gregory. (2003). Redesigning Humans: Choosing our Genes, Changing our Future. Boston: Mariner Books.

U.S. House Science Committee. (1998). Unlocking our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy. Washington, DC: Author. Policy report of September 24. Also available from

Wolbring, Gregor. (2003). "Confined to Your Legs." In Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, eds. Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, and Christina Desser. Covelo, CA: Island Press. Provocative inquiry into the implications of human biotechnology, from the perspective of a disabled person.

Woodward, Beverly. (1999). "Challenges to Human Subject Protection in US Medical Research." Journal of the American Medical Association 282(20): 1947–1952.

About this article

Governance of Science

Updated About content Print Article


Governance of Science