Addressing Socio-Economic and Ethical Considerations in Biotechnology Governance: The Potential of a New Politics of Care
There is a growing demand to incorporate social, economic and ethical considerations into biotechnology governance. However, there is currently little guidance available for understanding what this means or how it should be done. A framework of care-based ethics and politics can capture many of the concerns maintaining a persistent socio-political conflict over biotechnologies and provide a novel way to incorporate such considerations into regulatory assessments. A care-based approach to ethics and politics has six key defining features. These include: 1) a relational worldview, 2) an emphasis on the importance of context, 3) a recognition of the significance of dependence, 4) an analysis of power, including a particular concern for those most vulnerable, 5) a granting of weight to the significance of affect, and 6) an acknowledgment of an important role for narrative. This policy brief provides an overview of these defining features, illustrates how they can appear in a real world example and provides a list of guiding questions for assessing these features and advancing a politics of care in the governance of biotechnology.
KeywordsCare ethics Biotechnology Governance Socio-economic considerations Power Vulnerability
There is a growing demand to incorporate social, economic and ethical considerations into biotechnology governance. However, there is currently little guidance available for understanding what this means or how it should be done. A framework of care-based ethics and politics can capture many of the concerns maintaining a persistent socio-political conflict over biotechnologies and provide a novel way to incorporate such considerations into regulatory assessment and policy making.
Why do We Need a Politics of Care for Biotechnology Governance?
Agricultural biotechnology has been a source of social and environmental conflict for decades. Existing governance institutions relying on traditional processes of scientific risk assessment have failed to address the sources of the persistent and deeply polarized conflict (Pavone et al. 2011). This includes concerns relating to the concentration of ownership and power in agri-food systems, clashing visions of desirable futures, and limited trust in regulatory systems and available science. Finding new ways to approach biotechnology governance that can adequately account for the issues generating this conflict is now urgently required as the field is rapidly expanding through new tools for genome editing, synthetic biology, and the digitalisation of biological information.
In an attempt to better address the sources of conflict, an increasing number of countries now aim to incorporate socio-economic and ethical considerations in their appraisal of new biotechnologies (Binimelis and Myhr 2016). The importance of these considerations is also gaining traction at regional and international levels. For example, the European Directive 2015/412 now allows member states to restrict the cultivation of GM crops based on ‘non-scientific’ concerns, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has developed a framework for conceptual clarity on socio-economic considerations.
New biotechnologies can profoundly transform social arrangements, ecological systems and material structures. They can also shape public and political discourses, and affect the distribution of knowledge and skills. Any assessment of social, economic and ethical impacts therefore requires regulators to consider biotechnologies as much more than isolated technologies. They need to recognise the wide range of social, cultural and political relations that are intertwined in these technologies (Herrero et al. 2015). Practical experience and guidance on more holistic and integrative assessment approaches is limited and current approaches face significant challenges. These include how to: a) sufficiently identify and assess the wide range of relevant socio-economic and ethical impacts; b) employ appropriate appraisal methods beyond narrow risk and economic cost/benefit analyses, and c) evaluate the wider social, cultural and political context within which biotechnology development and use occurs and consider shifts in this during the appraisal process.
In order to provide useful guidance to address these challenges, new conceptual and evaluative frameworks are needed. This policy brief summarises an approach based on care ethics and politics that can provide a new lens through which to assess this rapidly changing technology in the public interest (Preston and Wickson 2016). This approach can capture many of the salient concerns causing socio-political conflict and be developed into guiding questions for assessing social, economic and ethical impacts.
A politics of care approach to biotechnology governance can therefore be directly used to guide the assessment of socio-economic and ethical considerations in those countries where this is already required or permitted within formal regulatory systems. Here the framework can be a particularly useful way to conceptualise the relevant issues beyond the typical economic frames of analysis. In cases where an appraisal of socio-economic considerations is not already an important component of regulatory assessment, a politics of care can highlight why significant reconceptualisation and reconfiguration of expert-led scientific risk assessment is required to address its limitations and reposition it as only one part of a multi-faceted appraisal process capable of incorporating a range of relevant concerns and diverse forms of knowledge. Furthermore, while we present this framework as a concrete way to conceptualise and approach the assessment of socio-economic considerations in practices of regulation, we also see it as a useful tool for governance more generally. This is because the defining features of a politics of care can not only expand the scope for risk assessment and regulation, but can also inform the policies and practices guiding and shaping research and innovation more broadly.
What are the Defining Features of a Politics of Care?
How might a Politics of Care be Implemented and What Does It Offer Biotechnology Governance?
Having proposed a concrete framework for a politics of care as a way to conceptualise and incorporate relevant socio-economic and ethical considerations into biotechnology governance, it is important to note that its implementation inherently calls for deliberation, negotiation and a redistribution of power. For a politics of care to truly permeate biotechnology governance, it will first be necessary for scientific risk assessment to reimagine its place within a more multifaceted form of assessment so that the considerations of care can carry the same weight in regulatory decision-making. Furthermore, knowledge on the relevant issues and questions of a politics of care will have to be gleaned through not only the integration of natural and social sciences together with the humanities, but also through the active involvement of diverse stakeholders and affected parties. At the very least, this will require multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder assessment committees with a broadened mandate and transparent and publicly accessible processes concerning their nomination, operation and review. There will also need to be dedicated efforts to harvest empirical knowledge on the issues at stake and to creatively incorporate diverse perspectives.
Guiding Questions to Advance a Politics of Care in Biotechnology Governance
Incorporating socio-economic and ethical considerations into biotechnology governance demands a more multifaceted and holistic approach than has historically been pursued. This extended scope and reorientation of interest is required at the level of both policy making and regulatory assessment. This includes: a) moving beyond assessing a technology’s risks to human health and the environment to also ask other types of relevant questions; b) expanding beyond case-by-case assessments to also consider the overarching trajectories being pursued, the potential cumulative impacts involved, and the available alternatives; and c) opening up the terms and modes of governance to be more inclusive, deliberative and reflexive. Expanding governance in these ways requires new conceptual frameworks, assessment methods and institutional cultures, and not least of all, the political will to change. However, what is clear is that the conflict over biotechnologies will neither shift nor disappear unless approaches to its governance change to more adequately account for the issues of concern.
The authors would like to thank all of the participants in the stakeholder seminar “Social and Ethical Assessment in GM Regulation: Should we care?”, which was organized as part of the Agri/Cultures Project and helped to develop the ideas presented in this brief. They would also like to acknowledge the funding received for the project from the Research Council of Norway (grant no. 231146).
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