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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Dealing with ignorance in exploratory experiments

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Ausschuss für Bildung, Forschung und Technikfolgenabschätzung
Status: ongoing
Current project phase: Report preparation
Duration: 2014 till 2018

Background and central aspects of the topic

It is often not possible to restrict scientific experiments in the context of technology developments to laboratories where there are monitorable conditions; instead, they often take place in the outside world or in society. Exploratory experiments of this kind are frequently conducted for initial developments and also follow-up applications of technologies whose short- and long-term impacts on the environment and/or society cannot be predicted or monitored and are therefore uncertain. Recent examples which may be cited include fracking, carbon capture and storage (CCS), the exploration of deep geothermal resources and the fertilisation of oceans with iron (e.g. in the context of LOHAFEX), but also developments in medicine, biotechnology and gene technology (e.g. gene therapy, green gene technology). Ignorance with reference to the type and extent of possible impacts on the environment and society is an inextricable part of exploratory experiments which are conducted in connection with these technology developments. As the example of LOHAFEX shows, cross-border problems can also occur, which can make new transnational research policies and partnerships necessary.

Insofar as society itself becomes part of such experiments and is directly affected by possible adverse developments (e.g. fundamental changes in the ecosystems), assessing possible dangers and threats and developing strategies for dealing with them represents a particular challenge. Societal stakeholders clearly claim a right at many levels to be involved in shaping such strategies, as evidenced simply by the fact that exploratory research can be met with huge protests. If, however, Germany opts on principle not to conduct such research operations, it could run the risk of no longer being able to respond appropriately to international initiatives, missing the boat with reference to developments on the world stage and losing the opportunity to exert relevant influence. Mechanisms and processes for enabling responsible and democratic decisions about exploratory experiments therefore become all the more important.

Against this backdrop there are fundamental questions as to how to deal with unavoidable ignorance and potential hazards and how to shape the relationship between the scientific community, society and policy-making bodies. Gene technology merits particular attention in this context since comprehensive and pioneering security criteria have already been defined in this research field at a national, European and international level which are underpinned by a multi-stage concept (closed system – approval – general application). To what extent is the multi-stage concept a design idea which can or should also be applied in other areas of exploratory experiments? What regulatory mechanisms (e.g. ethics committees or administrative processes) are productive where, and how can they be designed such that the autonomy, functionality and quality assurance of research are not impaired, on the one hand, but justified protective interests relating to humankind and the environment are not ignored, on the other hand? What forms of involvement of non-scientific stakeholders are meaningful, and how can they be organised and institutionalised? The TAB was commissioned by the German Bundestag with examining these questions in a TA project and identifying the options for action.

Objectives and approach

The main aim is to analyse how to deal with ignorance in exploratory experiments and what challenges arise from this for researchers and policy-makers when dealing with ignorance in exploratory experiments. The regulatory approaches and the scientific tools and processes for assessing the risks of exploratory experiments are to be examined, as are the options for involving the general public. On the basis of this, action needed in terms of policies and legislation is to be determined and corresponding strategies relating to policy design identified.

To achieve this, the handling of ignorance in exploratory experiments is to be analysed using three specific cases as examples. In addition to (1) gene technology, for which extensive experience is already available, the (2) iron fertilisation of oceans (LOHAFEX) and (3) geoscientific experiments (fracking, geothermal energy, carbon capture and storage) are to be studied. Both the special features and general aspects of each of these are to be examined.

These aspects include the existing and desirable regulations and also the question of whether tools are available which enable the threats and opportunities of exploratory experiments to be determined and ignorance in respect of the consequences of research to be dealt with. Are conventional tools and processes for assessing and managing dangers and threats adequate and, in the case of transnational experiments for example, appropriate? In addition, the study will also analyse what political processes are already available (e.g. formal processes for public involvement, informal processes such as scientist/public consultation forums and platforms) for making exploratory research accessible to societal involvement in helping to shape such research. On this basis, finally, the intention is to identify whether and in what way there is a need for research, regulation and adaptation, i.e. which tools would have to be developed from scratch, which existing tools could be adapted and what legal frameworks would have to be created or adapted.