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Knowing Today

Our ways of knowing, be it in research or in everyday-life are on the one hand highly social: much of what we know, we know through the spoken or written words of others; research consists not only in collaboration, but also in building upon previous knowledge, in communicating information, in communal quality assessment of scientific agents or content (e.g. peer review), etc. On the other hand, technology, particularly information and communication technologies mediate and shape these practices of knowing to profound extends. We check Wikipedia to find information about a city we plan to visit or some information about a historical incident, we rely on search engines to deliver relevant information on a specific topic, we use ratings of other agents explicitly to assess the quality of products before buying them or implicitly by accepting the ordering of search results or recommendations. Thus, contemporary epistemic practices have to be conceived as socio-technical epistemic practices.

Within these entangled socio-technical processes of knowing, we rely in numerous more or less transparent ways on other agents, human agents as much as non-human agents, infrastructures, technologies. However, what does this mean for the two main issues addressed in this paper, i.e. what are the implications of this socio-technical epistemic entanglement for (1) being responsible in knowing (individual perspective) and (2) for enabling responsibility in knowing (governance/design perspective)?

While the former issue is of relevance to each and every one of us, the latter is of special concern for policy makers. Particularly interesting cases for the governance perspective are the so-called Responsible Research and Innovation initiatives which have been proposed by several national research councils in Europe (e.g. in the UK, the Netherlands and Norway) as well as by the European Commission.

Responsible Research and Innovation

The Responsible Research and Innovation strategy of the European Commission is part of the prospective EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020 as a successor to the Science in Society strand of the current Framework Programme FP7. By combining the word responsible with research and innovation as two particularly knowledge-intense domains, it could be expected that RRI will deliver at least some answers to the before mentioned challenges regarding responsibility—particularly epistemic responsibility—in a hyperconnected era.

So what is RRI about? According to a recent leaflet by the European Commission: “(r)esponsible Research and Innovation means that societal actors work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes, with the values, needs and expectations of European society. RRI is an ambitious challenge for the creation of a Research and Innovation policy driven by the needs of society and engaging all societal actors via inclusive participatory approaches[1]

More specifically, the RRI framework consists of six key areas: (1) engagement, (2) gender equality, (3) science education, (4) open access, (5) ethics and (6) governance, the last one being an umbrella term for the first 5 areas[1]. On the website of the European Foundation Center the same first five areas of key relevance for RRI are also identified, area (6) on governance, however, is missing while they list science communication and career as two additional key areas of RRI. On this latter website, each key area is followed by short explanation. For instance, public engagement refers to the “engagement of people and civil society organizations in the research and innovation process and the integration of society in science issues” and careers to making careers in science and technology attractive to young students”[3].

Two observations may be illuminating: First of all, it seems that most of these guidelines focus on what may be considered professional ethics or business ethics, i.e. appropriate professional behavior in practices such as hiring or communicating. What appears rather neglected, in contrast, are the ethical implications of the epistemic practices in research and innovation themselves. Second, despite looming large in the title of the initiative, the term responsibility is surprisingly underrepresented in the descriptions of RRI's key areas and goals. In the summary on the website of the European Foundation Center the word “responsibility” is not to be found at all. In the leaflet by the European Commission, it appears at two instances: in the section on science education, it is argued that science education is needed to “equip future researchers and other societal actors with the necessary knowledge and tools to fully participate and take responsibility in the research and innovation process”4 while in the section on governance it says that “(p)olicymakers also have a responsibility to prevent harmful or unethical developments in research and innovation”.

If RRI shall be of some use to tackle the challenges with respect to epistemic responsibility in a hyperconnected era, then we need to improve it on two fronts. First, we need to add some meat to the notion of responsibility, to fill the term “responsible” in Responsible Research and Innovation with some content. Second, when addressing epistemic responsibility in research and innovation, we need to focus on the ethics of epistemic practices themselves, i.e. the responsibilities of epistemic agents as epistemic agents.

When asking what it may mean to act responsibly as an epistemic agent within socio-technically entangled systems, I will become obvious that epistemic responsibility is a topic that links epistemology to ethics. Therefore, we do not merely a subsection on ethics in Responsible Research and Innovation: we need to understand and acknowledge—both in epistemic and in political terms—that epistemic practices are inherently ethical practices.

In the next sections, I will start addressing some of the challenges we face with respect to epistemic responsibility in a hyperconnected era.

  • [1] and-innovation-leaflet_en.pdf (Accessed 28 June 2013).
  • [2] and-innovation-leaflet_en.pdf (Accessed 28 June 2013).
  • [3] (Accessed 28 June 2013).
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