The Emergence of the New – The Taming of Curiosity

Wanting what is not already wanted, controlling what is still unforeseeable: these are the problems that move research and the public today, though in different ways. If not everything that is scientifically possible can or should be realized, what criteria of selection should be applied, and what societal orientation is there for the production of what does not yet exist? The social order strives for at least a minimum of societal continuity and foreseeability. The striving for consensus increases the pres-sure on the selection in another way—not having to accept everything that appears to be technically and scientifically feasible or not accepting all technological visions. At the top of the list of the fears that are publicly articulated today is the threat of loss of control over oneself and over how one leads one’s life.

Today, the advance of liberal democracies and neoliberal economic systems has led to the celebration of what is regarded as its foundation, the autonomy of the individual, which is the result of centuries of struggle for liberation from political domination and religious censorship, at the same time as the neurosciences have cast doubt on whether the assumption of free will can be justified. And while consumers are subject to the suggestion that their decisions in purchasing products is freer, more informed, and more independent than ever before, in one area of research called neuroeconomics, imaging techniques like PET and MRI are coupled with sophisticated experiments in behavioral economy to find out how purchasing decisions are actually made and how they can be influenced.

Today, the cultural-historically unique preference for the acquisition of new scientific knowledge is coming to a socially explosive head. On the one hand, the aim is to keep the machinery that creates differences and brings forth the new running efflciently—indeed, to enhance it. On the other hand, it is turning out that the innovation machinery has a number of societal blind spots. Aside from existing interests, the expanded space of possibility itself must first be explored. Most of the effects on society are not known since technological-scientiflc innovations also presuppose social innovations and depend on them for their success. For this reason, a balance is needed that guarantees the necessary degree of societal orientation, on the one hand, and that can produce a sufficiently dynamic preliminarily, on the other. But how can the accompanying instability in relation to the “play of possibilities” be accepted by society? How can a basic societal consensus be found that affirms and accepts the unforeseeability that is inseparable from research?

For as François Jacob aptly put it, “What we can suspect today will not become reality. There will be changes in any case, but the future will be different from what we think. That is especially true for science. Research is an endless process about which one can never say how it will develop. Unforeseeability is part of the essence of the venture of science. If one encounters something really new, then by definition this is something that one could not have known in advance. It is impossible to say where a particular area of research will lead.” And he adds, “One must also accept the unexpected and the disquieting.

Between society’s preference for the new (as expressed in the institutionalization of modern technosciences and their societal status, which saw several centuries of a process of cultural forerunners, diverse revaluations, and many-layered revolutions in the structure of society) and a publicly articulating civil society that now presses for additional selection criteria in the process of acquiring knowledge, a zone of uncertainty is emerging and growing. It is essentially based on the fact that all knowledge that produces the new expands without itself being able to provide the criteria in accordance with which it can be limited again. The greater the desire for the unexpected that is brought forth by research in the lab, the more the pres-sure of expectation grows to bring it under control and steer it in specific directions while excluding other directions. The aim is to tame scientific curiosity and yet to give it free rein. The pressure for this comes from two seemingly opposite directions.

The taming of scientific curiosity takes place in the public space and is initiated by changes that are visible in a broader framework. One form of this taming takes the direction of a privatization of knowledge, or more precisely of the increasing tendency to register and exercise rights of ownership and dis-position over scientific knowledge, data, methods, and new forms of life or organisms created in the laboratory. Perhaps researchers themselves unconsciously contribute to this when, seeking to protect their legitimate interests, they register owner-ship rights to their findings and see themselves and behave more like knowledge owners than like knowledge workers.9

Behind this development is the shift in the increasing level of investment in research from the state to the private sector. With this, a regime moves into research that has already successfully dominated the industrial and service sectors and that is now also supposed to efficiently cover the rising need for investment in science and guarantee greater efficiency in producing knowledge. Intellectual property rights, patents, licenses, and similar arrangements aim to ensure that competitive think-ing and a greater proximity to the market lead to a more rapid transfer from the laboratory to marketable products or new technological systems. The trend to the privatization of knowledge is thus part of a broader pattern of societal changes. If the growing need for funding is to be covered by the private sector while the public research budget stagnates, then intellectual property rights will expand, and this will inevitably change the way researchers work, including their relationships to each other. Equally, basic research, in which future applications are still mostly uncertain, will move closer to possible contexts of application.

The second tendency is for civil society to have a greater voice in decision-making processes that center on complex scientiflc-technological matters and that are expected to have far-reaching effects on people’s lives. If, in the first tendency, the shift in financing was the starting point for increasing privatization and “propertization” of scientific curiosity, then the second tendency has to do with the process of democratization, which does not stop short of the institution, science. A civil society whose level of education is higher than ever before demands a voice in the decisions on scientiflc-technological developments that touch on the self-understanding and value structure of modern societies. Even if by far not everything that scientific curiosity pursues is controversial, we cannot overlook the fact that the most promising and future-oriented areas of research, like the bio- and nanotechnologies and developments in biomedicine and the neurosciences, become the focus of public protests and rejection. At the center are questions of identity and protection of the private sphere, changes in kinship relations due to progress in reproductive medicine, involuntary exposure to risks, and the approach to the resources and services of nature. Many publicly expressed worries are based on the fear of losing control over how one leads one’s life and on the threatening loss of the self in a confusingly complex world shaped by science and technology and in the midst of an inexorable process of globalization.

In one case, science is accused of no longer paying enough attention to the public interest and of becoming too dependent on markets and their economic constraints. In the second case, the accusation is that science is not public enough because it does not adequately take account of the legitimate claims of civil society and becomes too dependent on the state and industry. In one case, scientific curiosity is to be tamed by subjecting it to the regime of private economic use and its efficiency, while in the other case the domestication is to be achieved through a democratization of scientific expertise, including a public voice in the setting of scientific priorities. But these two directions are only seemingly opposites and above all should not be seen in isolation. The increase in prosperity in the Western industrial societies and the spread of the new information and communication technologies have led to a striking departure from the idea of a paternalistic and centralized welfare state that knows and can satisfy its citizens’ needs. Instead, science increasingly counts on private and privatized means. The rhetoric of the empowerment of the individual, who best knows her own interests and knows how to and wants to decide on her own, merely underscores the attractiveness that private property and the power of disposition have won in the thicket of growing interdependencies and diverse dependencies—the promise of greater individual autonomy.

The democratization of scientific expertise, which is skeptical about the credibility of scientific impartiality and its disinterest, also demands that science provide greater public accounting and that research orient itself more toward what moves people positively and negatively today. The shift from the state to the market and the continuing privatization of areas that used to be within the purview of the state have created the figure of the freely choosing, freely deciding consumer and voter. It therefore also lies within the latter’s competency to buy or reject the products coming to market that are owed to science and technology and also to judge other results of research and research’s orientation in the future. Privatization thus not only is a powerful theme in neoliberal ideology and political rhetoric but also has captured the public imagination by promising greater individual autonomy. The freely choosing consumer is the twin sister of the authentic, free individual.

In this way, the two directions converge in the attempts to tame scientific curiosity. Privatization and “propertization” of the production and products of scientific knowledge are nothing else than the expansion of a regime that helped the industrial societies achieve their high degree of economic growth. Since science and technology are today regarded as the crucial driving forces for further growth and improvement of the standard of living, they too should be brought into the regime that has been successful thus far. The efficiency of markets, competition, and intellectual property rights should also prove its effect on the growth of productivity and the increase of scientific-technological output. A knowledge-based society also increases its production of epistemic things, various kinds of abstract objects, and technical artifacts that are subject to the same rules.

The democratization of scientific expertise is also merely the expansion of the principles of governance that have served the Western liberal democracies well. Today, science and technology are no longer viewed with awe but are part of everyday life. Mediated by the educational system and the qualifications and certificates people acquire, they determine people’s chances for upward social mobility, their working world, and the course of their biographies. It is thus logical to extend the concept of citizenship to science and technology. “Scientiflc citizenship” comprises rights and duties and asks about both the functions that an expanded concept of citizenship could fulflll in social integration and also the duties that arise from it for citizens as well as for political institutions and administration.

The decisive question, of course, will be how far the attempts to domesticate scientific curiosity can go without endangering autonomy, which science will continue to require in the future. The autonomy of science developed out of cur-rents and struggles similar to those that led to the concept of the autonomous individual. The freedom of action that science enjoyed was always also de facto limited and historically change-able. If the public character of science and its service to the public interest are under discussion today, this is also a result of the withdrawal of the state, which permits science as an institution to step out from its shadow and protection. It is more intensely exposed to the forces of the market but also to the demands raised and protests staged in the name of democracy. How far the vision of a privatized production of knowledge can go will also be measured by the degree to which it is poli tically acceptable. More efforts will be required to create public spaces for negotiating what scientific curiosity can and may do.

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