An operationalized post-normal science framework for assisting in the development of complex science policy solutions: the case of nanotechnology governance

Abstract

Scientists, engineers, and policy analysts commonly suggest governance regimes for technology to maximize societal benefits and minimize negative societal and environmental impacts of innovation processes. Yet innovation is a complex socio-technical process that does not respond predictably to modification. Our human propensity to exclude complexity when attempting to manage systems often results in insufficient, one-dimensional solutions. The tendency to exclude complexity (1) reinforces itself by diminishing experience and capacity in the design of simple solutions to complex problems, and (2) leads to solutions that do not address the identified problem. To address the question of how to avoid a complexity-exclusion trap, this article operationalizes a post-normal science framework to assist in the enhancement or design of science policy proposals. A literature review of technological fixes, policy panaceas, and knowledge-to-action gaps is conducted to survey examples of post-normal science frameworks. Next, an operational framework is used to assess the case of a proposed international nanotechnology advisory board. The framework reveals that the board addresses a slice of the broader, more complex problem of nanotechnology governance. We argue that while the formation of an international advisory board is not problematic in-and-of-itself, it is symptomatic of and plays into a complexity-exclusion trap. We offer researchers, policy analysts, and decision-makers three recommendations that incorporate a more appropriate level of complexity into governance proposals.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The tragedy of the commons describes cases in which all individuals involved in an open-access resource system have an incentive to take as much as possible, but no individuals have an incentive to safeguard the resource from such behavior—the result being resource-system collapse (Hardin 1968).

  2. 2.

    We refer to the international nanoscience advisory board as, “the board” throughout this case study. “The board” is not used in reference to any other advisory or regulatory boards proposed or in existence.

  3. 3.

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Organization. Available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml#.UqiaNI1RbP8. Accessed on 11 December 2013.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article and Youngjae Kim for early conversations around nanotechnology governance. An earlier iteration of this work was presented in May 2013 at the First Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics, Chandler, Arizona. This research was undertaken with support from The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU), funded by the National Science Foundation (cooperative agreement #0531194 and #0937591). The findings and observations contained in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Bernstein.

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Bernstein, M.J., Foley, R.W. & Bennett, I. An operationalized post-normal science framework for assisting in the development of complex science policy solutions: the case of nanotechnology governance. J Nanopart Res 16, 2492 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11051-014-2492-1

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Keywords

  • Socio-technical problems
  • Complexity-exclusion trap
  • Science advisory boards
  • Ethical
  • Legal
  • Societal