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Responsibility means answering to and for science

How to reconsider science’s role in society, looking at its implication rather than its application

The responsibility bestowed upon research and innovation is by no means a new mission. Nor does it require the introduction of new departments within existing scientific institutions. Instead, what I call “plural science” is an intrinsic part of science itself, as an institutionalised practice of research and innovation.

Following from this pluralist perspective, there are several inherent values in research. The first, fecundity, is linked to the capacity of research to develop new modes of questionings. The second, diversity, refers to the ability of research to welcome scientific pluralism in all its dimensions. And the third,impartiality, is related to the ability of research to test scientific knowledge through reality.

The value of responsibility is added to these three values of scientific activities. Indeed, it constitutes the basis on which a reconsideration of sciences’ implication in society should be implemented. Thus, under RRI’s current thinking, our founding hypothesis is that all sciences are implicated. As such, contrarily to what we most often think, science’s applications do not constitute the primary relationship between research or innovation and reality.

Traditionally, fundamental science–expected to be neutral and disinterested–is distinct from applied sciences–only held responsible for applications. However, this legacy point of view does not hold. Applications cannot be used as a logical structure for responsibility. Or else, we are taking the risk of disentangling an entire part of the scientific field from its responsibilities. And we also take the risk to only focus on the controversial scientific topics and those that are socially problematic.

Instead, responsibility should not be considered as one of the missions of science. In fact, it should be at the foundation of a new paradigmatic vision for research and innovation and its relationship to reality. In this new perspective, the applications of research must become second its implication.


To illustrate this idea, let’s take the example of biomedical research programs on Alzheimer’s disease. Before we can understand Alzheimer’s mechanisms, we first need to summon a great diversity of scientific aspects to related knowledge and disciplines; these will cover areas of knowledge ranging from the physio-pathological to the socio-environmental dimensions. We also need to involve numerous different actors within and outside the scientific community. Especially, as we must take into consideration the many experiential aspects of the knowledge of the persons concerned.

Despite being distinct, none of the disciplines and none of the participating facets of this knowledge can dissociate themselves from their implications towards society. Even the most fundamental genetic study of the disease is implicated towards society, even when it aims at finding the genetic determinants of Alzheimer’s, sometimes using very abstract notions.

These disciplines are not solely implicated by the potential applications, which would be drawn from them through the development of new medications, for example. But they are also implicated because such multi-faceted aspects associated with our knowledge will ultimately shape our understandings of the disease. These aspects will also institute the modes of existence of Alzheimers’ and determine our relationship to the illness and the way we apprehend it, from diagnosis to care.

Knowing the genetic determinants to Alzheimer’s disease is not merely a neutral cognitive inquiry. As such, it is not associated with limited responsibility. Nor is this knowledge mainly about diagnostic tests and potential treatments. Scientific knowledge and concrete innovations participate in a greater ecosystem of causes and effects, which go beyond the scientific field into the social one.

Thus, any science, any scientific research, any innovation must pass the responsibility test, by understanding the modifications it will trigger within such an ecosystem. We have to understand those modifications and be able to answer for them. Responsibility means being able to answer to and to answer for, whichever kind of knowledge is being produced.

Léo Coutellec

Léo is researcher in philosophy of sciences, at the Ethics Research Ile-de-France, Université Paris-Sud, Excellence Labortaory DistAlz, France.

Featured image credit: Qimono via Pixabay

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