November 28, 2010
Earlier in the week I attended a symposium, Getting Connected: How to achieve effective regulation of new emerging technologies?, organised by the think-tank Biocentre. I have previously posted a summary of my talk, and this post gives an overview of the other presentations.
The topic of the symposium is a challenging one, and the meeting was deliberately designed to bring a diverse range of perspectives to bear. The organisers certainly succeeded in this aim, with a set of speakers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds.
The meeting was opened by Chamu Kuppuswamy who discussed regulation from the perspective of international law. She stressed particularly the important relationship between binding international legislation, like treaties, and more advisory approaches such as international declarations. The next speaker was Charles Raab who took IT privacy issues as a case study for regulation. He covered the range of approaches that can be taken, but made the central point that we need to consider both the regulatory instruments and the policy environment in which they operate. Andy Stirling addressed issues of risk and uncertainty in the regulation of emerging technologies. He called for an approach that opens up, rather than closes down, options and emphasised the importance of taking into account as wide a range of views and approaches as possible. Later in the afternoon Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, explained the role and work of the Committee. In scrutinising science and technology in Parliament, the Committee play an important part in keeping the development of regulation in touch with new technologies. Finally, the meeting was concluded by a presentation from Julia Manning of the 2020health.org think-tank. She introduced their recent report on emerging technologies in healthcare.
Although there was a diverse set of inputs, a set of common themes emerged from the discussion:
- The regulation of emerging technologies needs to be global, and to take into account the global context, especially the increasing connectedness of the world.
- Given the pace of change in technology it is becoming more important that a wide range of view points are integrated for the development of effective regulation.
- And more broadly, we need to make sure that the development of new technologies is not just driven by science, but is also responsive to societal need.
At the end of the meeting I was left with a feeling of the challenge of getting this right. With technology developing at an ever-increasing pace, how we can we take the measured and thoughtful steps needed to maximise the benefits, and mitigate the risks?
November 22, 2010
Earlier today I spoke at a symposium organised by Biocentre on the regulation of emerging technologies. In this post I am going to summarise my own talk (slides below), and will report on the other speakers’ presentations later.
My talk focussed on the relationship between public engagement with research and the development of effective regulation for emerging technologies. This is an essential and central linkage because most, if not all ’emerging technologies’, emerge from research. The only way we can ensure that public engagement with emerging technologies happens sufficiently early in their development is by bringing that engagement right ‘upstream’ into research itself. This concept has been around for a while, and there is a growing library of engagement reports that have sought views on emerging technologies and related research.
There are a couple of key conclusions run through these reports. First. the need for appropriate regulation is a common theme in discussions of new technologies. In general people see the benefits of new technological developments, and they see regulation as a way of managing the potential downsides. I don’t think you can argue with this point given the history of technological innovation where there are plenty of examples where it would have been much better if the negative consequences had been managed in advance. But more than this there is valuable information contained in these dialogues for framing the development of regulation. For example, the extent to which technological innovations are, or could be made reversible is a potential guiding principle. And the need for truly international regulatory frameworks is also clearly appreciated.
While there is undoubtedly plenty of evidence that dialogue about research has the potential to be helpful in designing appropriate regulation there is less evidence that it actually does so. The challenge is to feed the thinking that emerges from public engagement into the processes that develop regulation. Of course regulators need to balance risk and benefit, and take care not to stifle the development of new technologies. But I believe it would help if they were more open to and involved with public engagement with research.
November 17, 2010
- Your qualifications. Does being qualified in science make you a scientist? And how qualified do you have to be? Is it good enough to have a high school qualification in a science subject, or do you need a university degree, or maybe a PhD is the entry point into ‘being a scientist’?
- Your job. Do you have to be working at increasing our understanding of the world to be a scientist? You could do this by carrying out experiments or developing theory or maybe just summarising and synthesising the experiments and theory of others. Or does communicating about science in a way that non-scientists (whoever they are…) can understand and appreciate makes you a scientist. Is a school science teacher a scientist? And what about people who worked at pushing back the frontiers once, but do a different sort of job now? Are they scientists? And if not when did they stop being scientists?
- Your way of thinking. Are you constantly trying to understand more about the world around you? Is the question “What is the evidence for that?” often on your lips? Do you naturally question and analyse? Do you try to extract general principles from your observations, while always being wary of generalizing too much? Is your reaction to a number often to ask “Compared to what?”?
Thinking like a scientist. That’s what makes you one…
November 15, 2010
Peer review is the central pillar of the process of scientific research yet it remains a black box, invisible to those outside of the research community. As I have said previously, lifting this veil and making peer review of journal articles more transparent could make a big contribution to increasing trust in scientific research. A recent report [subscription required] in Nature decribes a programme to just that at the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). There is also an excellent discussion of the article by Joerg Heber on his blog.
The experience at EMBO demonstrates that:
- Researchers seem to be happy with publishing peer review. In the case of the EMBO Journal, only 5% of authors declined to have peer review process documents published.
- Readers of papers see a value in accessing this material. Although for this pilot study peer review process documents were made comparatively difficult to access there was a reasonable rate, about one tenth of the access of the papers themselves.
- The process influences (and probably improves) the quality of peer review. Peer reviewers claim to be taking more care over the wording of their reports because they know that they will be published, albeit anonymously. Even if this is just about writing in a clearer way it represents a real benefit, but it may also be encouraging more considered and constructive comments.
Overall this seems to have been a really successful experiment, which is now to become a standard part of the operating procedures at this journal. Given this success it is hard to find reasons for not applying the practice to all peer reviewed research.