Can technology governance do without fictions?

Once in a blue moon I experience an intellectual crisis for it feels as if the cognitive foundation of my professional activity is built on quicksand. My work is premised on the assumption that advances in science and technology can be governed for the common good. In Europe, this assumption is presently expressed through an (as of now) unsubstantiated belief in technology policy as a motor of economic growth and job creation, and in research policies aimed at promoting so called responsible research and innovation. René von Schomberg, one of the intellectual architects, defines responsible research and innovation as:

… a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society). p.64

von Schomberg, R. (2013). A Vision of Responsible Research and Innovation. In R. Owen, J. Bessant, & M. Heintz (Eds.), Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society (pp. 51-74). Chichester: Wiley.

Thus far relatively large sums have been invested in social science and humanities projects (by their standards, that is) for researching cases and developing instruments meant to make research and innovation practices more responsive to their societal context. In addition, scientists applying for money allocated to these technology policies (e.g. material science or biotechnology) are asked by research councils to showcase the societal value of their research output and explain how they intent to be mindful about the downstream consequences of their research. (There is a curious imbalance between how much effort has been put into developing RRI frameworks and ‘tools’ compared to the lack of attention on how they can be translated into real world practices through a governance regime constrained to distributing funds). My job at the Centre for Digital Life, too, is funded through a program that builds on the belief of creating economic activity through (responsible) technology policy.

Science relies on public funding and depends on being in politicians’ good favor as they allocate public expenditures. Especially in times of (fiscal) crisis there is a heightened need to legitimize the public support for science, mostly by means of the rhetoric that science produces valuable things for society. There is nothing new to this. Now comes the twist. Trajectories of scientific development are in interaction with particular interests in society as they serve (and make possible) industrial, military, socio-political or environmental agendas; this is known as co-production. The gap between particular interests and the public good is an essential tension at the heart of democracy that can only be resolved with the help of conceptual fictions, such as Rousseau’s general will, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities. RRI champions a science for the benefit of all and thus (un)knowingly depends on some sort of conceptual fiction to reconcile the particular with the general. The claim to some shared set of (European) values as the basis of science governance is a lever that is much more effective than demands for a science in the service of diversity or the poor. Science lobbying, too, knows that it needs to bridge the particular-collective gap and often does so in an awkward manoeuvre that invokes an abstract ‘the general public’ that is to benefit from what trickles down through taxation of economic growth led by technological innovation. How can one then advance the democratic governance of science and technology without resorting to a symbolically powerful fiction of the public good?