Risk governance in age of uncertainty
Green chemistry is an alternative to traditional chemistry that leads to environmental pollution. However, alternative technologies can also risk yielding unpredictable consequences later.
By Kim Eun-sung
We are now living in an age of uncertainty arising from the development of emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, neuroscience and the convergence of all these technologies. At present, many nations take these emerging technologies as their future growth engines and make enormous investment in the research and development (R&D) of these technologies. However, it is still uncertain whether or not these technologies can ultimately contribute not only to economic growth but also to sustainable development and the improvement of life quality.
It is reported that genetically modified organisms are at risk of genetic pollution within an ecosystem in which their genes are transferable from species to species. In the case of nanotechnology the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned in 2006 that silver nano-particles can have an adverse impact on the liver and kidneys. But there is no full scientific evidence with regard to the benefits and risks of emerging technologies.
How does uncertainty affect our lives and the way of governing technologies? First, uncertainty enables the production of various technological futures, whether they are rosy or dystopian. The uncertainty of technological futures is vital to science fiction novels or movies. Many sci-fi films like "Blade Runner," "The Matrix" and "The Island" depict and construct future societies with future imaginaries of emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology. However, the production of futures is not confined to movies but takes place in governmental policies and the public debate in civic society.
Uncertainty and social conflict
The government tends to draw rosy futures in technology policies, while civic and environmental organizations sketch dismal futures arising from social and ecological upheavals resulted from emerging technologies. Various futures of emerging technologies are in conflict between the government and non-governmental organizations. In this sense, technological futures, whatever the humans touch, are not detached from the present value and interest of stakeholders. Futures are socially constructed.
Second, uncertainty yields social conflict. It also poses an enormous challenge to scientific expertise in risk decision-making as well as in dealing with social conflict arising from emerging technologies. Various technological futures are conflicting in social debate. Unfortunately, scientific knowledge is limited in dealing with uncertainty, because the speed of technological development is too fast. It is hard to fully predict the multiple social, environmental effects of fast-moving technologies.
The decline of trust in scientific experts and of scientific authority in the face of uncertainty can trigger social conflict associated with emerging technologies. Alternately, social conflict increases scientific uncertainty. In other words, uncertainty is socially constructed. Uncertainty goes beyond the scope of expert knowledge but rather is closely tied to social interests.
Uncertainty arises not only from the lack of knowledge but also from the superfluity of knowledge. In a contemporary knowledge society, the affluence of knowledge does not mean the rise of certainty, but rather leads to the growth of uncertainty by producing various knowledge spaces such as newspapers, social media, and the Internet as well as a lot of knowledge producers working in these places. In the wake of uncertainty, scientific knowledge in risk analysis reaches its limit in accordance with the decline of trust in governmental policies that depend on scientific experts. In this vein, some scholars depict the age of uncertainty as "post-trust societies" or the age of "post-normal science."
Third, regulatory laws are limited in the face of uncertainty. They cannot enforce a legal command and control on risky technologies without adequate scientific evidence of their risks. In the absence of scientific evidence, strong laws are of no use in dealing with emerging technologies. They have to wait until scientific evidence is adequately produced. However, the postponement of regulatory actions can result in serious consequences provided that a small amount of emerging technologies has the potential to adversely affect human health and the environment.
Risk management strategies
What are desirable risk management strategies to cope with the uncertainty of emerging technologies given this limitation? The first strategy is trial and error. The aim of that is to learn from the experience of minor errors, as the proverb "look before you leap" warns. Trial and error is aimed at learning from mistakes incrementally by phasing in policy actions rather than enforcing policies all at once. It facilitates learning from the experience of errors through building effective monitoring and feedback systems.
The second strategy is a precautionary principle. It arises from the idea of "better safe than sorry." This principle denotes the idea that precautionary measures should be required in the absence of scientific evidence when the potential consequences of emerging technologies are severe and irreversible. Risk foresight and risk aversion are essential to the policy function of the precautionary principle.
Traditional risk policy is aimed at optimizing risk by risk benefit analysis, while the precautionary principle is aimed to minimize risk by both predicting and avoiding risk before it occurs. The precautionary principle involves many risk policies with varying degrees of regulation. It is related not only to banning and prohibiting risky materials but also to building early warning systems as well as lifecycle monitoring systems of the whole technological production process from R&D to consumption.
The third strategy is design phase intervention. It is significant to enforce risk policy at the design stage of emerging technologies. It is extremely hard to withdraw risky technologies after they are built into industrial infrastructure and are embedded in consumption culture. That is called technological inflexibility. Technology is inflexible to policy actions, depending on the size of investment capital and the dependence of consumer life on embedded technologies. Therefore, risk policies of emerging technologies should be implemented at the design stage rather than after they are developed. At the stage of technological innovation, R&D policies should be combined with risk management, through which reflexive innovation systems can be built.
The fourth strategy is to attain technological pluralism in the R&D of emerging technologies. Technological pluralism refers to the diversification of technological choice in the technological innovation process by developing various alternatives to replace dominant technologies. Green chemistry is an alternative to traditional chemistry that leads to environmental pollution. The development of various alternative technologies enables the reduction of social and economic shocks resulting from the phasing out of dominant technologies given that their risks are proven. How is alternative alternative enough? It is subject to the interpretation of stakeholders and users. Moreover, alternative technologies can also risk yielding unpredictable consequences later. Continuous risk assessment and the monitoring of alternative technologies is necessary. Technological pluralism starts from the imagination of various technological futures. The imagination itself is not only what scientists and engineers can do, albeit they can materialize these futures. Rather all stakeholders including other experts and consumers can imagine alternative technological futures. Therefore, comprehensive interdisciplinary and social communication of technological futures is vital to technological pluralism. Technological pluralism coincides with social pluralism.
The fifth strategy is to strengthen self-regulation in research organizations and companies. In the wake of emerging technologies, bureaucratic command and control is shifted into a way of self-regulation that companies and research organizations build voluntary codes of conduct for the safety management of emerging technologies. Due to the lack of external control, the self-regulation approach can fail without internal control systems or a voluntary safety culture. In fact, the rate of voluntary participation of companies in self-regulation is not high in the case of nanotechnology. Small- and medium-sized companies are not willing to comply with a voluntary code of conduct. To resolve these problems, a voluntary code of conduct is required to be used as indicators of evaluation in the selection and evaluation processes of national R&D.
Moreover, it is necessary to monitor whether or not companies comply with the responsible code of conduct related to the safety management of emerging technologies.
The sixth strategy is to improve public communication and the public's right to know of emerging technologies. A new way of public communication is necessary in the age of uncertainty depicted as a "post-trust societies." A traditional way of public communication based on an announce-and-defense strategy is limited in the face of the uncertainty of emerging technologies. People do not trust expert arguments because they receive new risk information from new knowledge spaces such as the Internet and social media. People are not consumers of risk information but rather secondary producers of risk information. Therefore, it is necessary to build interactional or multidirectional channels between the government and civic society.
The seventh strategy is participatory governance. The rise of emerging technologies is coproduced with the emergence of participatory governance in R&D and risk policies because expert knowledge lacks public trust in the age of uncertainty. Communication between experts and citizens is vital to the governance of emerging technologies. In this vein, participatory technology assessments such as consensus conference and citizen juries have been used in several countries. However, it is still debatable how much participatory technology assessment can affect technology innovation and technology policy as well. A study on the ethical, legal, and social implications of biotechnology was open to criticism because it was separate from the R&D of biotechnology. In the wake of this critique, a new technology assessment called 뱑eal-time technology assessment?is on the rise in the governance of nanotechnology in the United States.
Real-time technology assessment is a way of anticipatory governance that forecasts the future impacts of emerging technologies through collaboration between scientists and humanity and social scientists. It is designed to build a reflexive, responsible innovation system by directly intervening research and development of emerging technologies. It takes place within a laboratory instead of being conducted by outside technology assessment agencies. To do this, the government should launch a new R&D plan for interdisciplinary R&D that enhances collaboration between scientists and humanity and social scientists associated with emerging technologies.
However, the alternative risk policies above are not able to remove uncertainty perfectly but just cope with it. In an age of uncertainty, it is important to abandon the ideal or hope of certainty. Rather, the hope increases uncertainty paradoxically. Alternative risk policies cannot fail to face new uncertainties.
They are not the way of overcoming uncertainty but rather the way of adapting to it. However, uncertainty is not at all a wicked monster. It is like the destiny of Sisyphus in Greek's myth. As Sisyphus hilariously rolls a rock to the top of a mountain which is again destined to roll down, uncertainty is like the existential destiny of policymakers to face forever. The most important blessing of uncertainty is reflexivity. It leads all stakeholders including government officials, experts, and citizens to be humble.
Ignorance lets people be modest. Therefore, the most desirable in the age of uncertainty is to affirm uncertainty and then to undertake reflexive decision-making.
The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The major feature of the Kyoto Protocol is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions .These amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.
The major distinction between the Protocol and the Convention is that while the Convention encouraged industrialized countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.
Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the Protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”
The Kyoto Protocol is generally seen as an important first step towards a truly global emission reduction regimen that will stabilize GHG emissions, and provides the essential architecture for any future international agreement on climate change.
By the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, a new international framework needs to have been negotiated and ratified that can deliver the stringent emission reductions the Intergovernmental Panel indicated on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly are needed.
Dr. Kim Eun-sung is an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute of Public Administration. He is currently working on disaster and risk management, in particular, about decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty. He has worked on risk studies of mad cow disease, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, climate change and enterprise risk management Graduating from the department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Ph.D. in 2006, he undertook post-doctoral research at the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.