Think-tanks play a key role in policy today. Yet, for scholars who are concerned with the dynamics within and between law and science, the place and impact of such organisations are often overlooked. To begin to remedy this, we held an event titled ‘Regulating Bioscience: Between the Ivory Tower and the Policy Room’ on 6 October 2014 at the Wellcome Trust Conference Centre. With participants ranging across life science, social science and the humanities – and including members of policy organisations and think-tanks – we looked at some of the issues around think-tanks and the governance of science. The event was convened as part of our AHRC Technoscience, Law and Society Network, and held in partnership with the BBSRC.
In order to give an overview of how a funding agency engaged with think-tanks and considered issues of science governance, we invited Patrick Middleton, Head of Engagement at the BBSRC, to give some opening comments. Patrick discussed how the BBSRC decided its funding policy through formal, structured consultations, as well as informal conversations with a range of people – including representatives of think-tanks. The reports of bodies like Demos and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics were also described as important for thinking about future funding and governance trajectories for the BBSRC. One of the most significant ways the BBSRC directed research was through apportioning funds to particular large calls. Further, the steering of science was achieved by talking about it: by noting what kinds of research the BBSRC feels is important in blogs, press releases, and on Twitter. Patrick described how the scientists he worked with often saw the law as a help to research: it removed uncertainty about what could be done (and what shouldn’t), setting the boundaries of acceptability.
The next speaker was Jack Stilgoe, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at UCL (and formerly a member of Demos, and the policy group at the Royal Society of London). Jack discussed his perspectives on technology governance, drawing on the work of Langdon Winner and Roger Pielke, Jr. He argued that science and technology influence our lives in profound ways that are often unaccountable. Accordingly, innovation should be the subject of substantive governance, involving public debate and participation. Jack spoke favourably of the degree to which the EPSRC recognised this, including their commissioning of work (with which Jack was involved) that underscored how innovation should entail: anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity and responsiveness. These themes relate to the wider project of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI), which has been adopted by a range of funders internationally. Yet, the issue of ‘responsiveness’ has been less frequently considered. Think-tanks and other organisations may have a key role to play in helping scientists and their sponsors think through this, not least through the opportunities they provide to foster dialogue and collaboration between diverse actors and institutions.
Joanna Chataway, from RAND Europe and Professor of Biotechnology and Development at the Open University, picked up on some of Jack’s themes of interdisciplinarity, discussing the importance to think-tanks of containing a range of members from different disciplinary backgrounds. Joanna situated her talk against the backdrop of a contemporary governance style within which, since the 1990s, the UK government have increasingly stated that they consider ‘evidence’ important in policymaking (e.g. around the regulation of science and technology). Think-tanks are one means through which such evidence can be produced, and they are especially good at working fast, and also with a wide range of forms of ‘messy’ (qualitative and quantitative) data. As Joanna pointed out, though, the expertise and commitment required to collate and analyse such data is expensive, raising questions regarding who pays for the work of think-tanks and what agendas are implicit within particular projects. Further, and echoing Patrick, Joanna described how getting evidence into policy is not a straightforward or linear process: it requires the production and circulation of reports, but also the movement of, and engagement between, different people and the ideas they are working with.
Our last speaker was Hugh Whittall, Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, who gave reflections on the place of publics in governing science and technology – and the role of think-tanks in helping to enable their participation. Like Joanna, Hugh emphasised the lack of linearity of the ‘evidence to policy’ journey, and described how this presented opportunities for a range of actors to influence the decisions of policymakers. In particular, think-tanks (as Jack also described) can present opportunities for different ‘stakeholders’ to meet and discuss their hopes and concerns, including through structured public participation events that seek to address democratic deficits in science policy. However, there are questions here about how particular publics are constituted and assembled through engagement events: which interests come to be represented, and which are excluded? Hugh also cautioned against assuming the neutrality of think-tanks; instead, it should be remembered that these organisations carry with them particular assumptions about society and technology. This does not make particular organisations ‘good’ or bad’, but does invite careful reflection from publics (including academics) regarding which think-tanks they engage with, and how they go about doing so.
Finally, Jane Calvert, Reader in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, gave closing reflections on the talks. In particular, she picked up some of the threads from the presentations around the normative implications of the work of think-tanks. Why, for instance, do think-tanks pay attention to some things and not others? Certain issues appear intrinsically more controversial than others, but what work do think-tanks do in constructing that controversy? Likewise, the governance of ‘emerging technologies’ is frequently a matter of concern – yet the ontology of ‘emergence’ remains both opaque and socially negotiated. Who, then, sets the agenda for think-tanks, and what are the bounds and the limits of what they can work on? What are the things think-tanks should be paying attention to, but are currently annexed out of their purview? Such issues speak to the broader concerns of the AHRC Technoscience, Law and Society Network, which will be elaborated more fully in our next Network event.