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ASU expert outlines ways to effectively manage innovation

September 12, 2008
While the world desperately needs many of the innovations that scientists promise, the record of research delivering on such promises is mixed, and society often underestimates its ability to steer research toward desired outcomes.

With researchers designing materials that assemble themselves to demonstrate new properties and enhancing humans to manipulate objects with thoughts alone, science is stretching the imagination. It also may stretch our comfort levels, our values and our interests in the larger social implications of such innovations. How can we develop and employ an effective science or innovation policy that takes these concerns seriously and yet doesn’t squash the very freedoms and creativity that are needed for it to succeed?

“Innovation policy evokes a tension,” states David Guston, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) in a commentary in the August 21, 2008 issue of Nature. “How does one predict and direct something that is by nature unpredictable and, by necessity, often undirected?”

According to Guston, who also is co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and a professor of political science, it is by strengthening society’s ability to nurture and guide innovation within socially acceptable frameworks. He calls this perspective “anticipatory governance.” CNS, funded by a $6.2 million National Science Foundation grant, pursues a research, education and outreach agenda directed at developing this perspective.

In particular, anticipatory governance attempts to correct three unspoken and ill-formed premises in most innovation policy – that policy should have a clear cause and effect relationship in society; policy should be grounded on a clear understanding of the natural world; and that ongoing and occasionally revolutionary change is inherent to the scientific enterprise.

Guston argues that “anticipatory governance” addresses each of these shortcomings by building strengths in engaging the public in scientific and technical questions to both inform them and understand their values, creating foresight that can help scientists and the broader public understand and prepare for unpredictable technical change, and developing integrated collaborations between natural and social scientists that can help incorporate these insights into scientific research as it happens.

“At ASU, natural and social scientists are working across all three of these areas to help assure that the research being done and the scientists being trained are as informed about the broader social settings of their research as possible.”

The type of work on anticipatory governance that Guston prescribes includes:

Public engagement
The recent National Citizens’ Technology Forum (conducted by CNS colleagues at North Carolina State University; included more than 80 lay-citizens at six sites across the country deliberating with scientists on issues about the potential enhancement of humans with emerging nanotechnologies.

The nanofutures project at CNS that has created a website ( to allow various groups to explore, consider and develop a variety of scenarios of nanotechnological development.

There are a variety of research and educational activities that allow social and natural scientists the opportunity to work closely together, learn from one another and have their research agendas influenced by insights that each other brings to the collaboration.

“Dr. Guston and I have been working together to integrate social, political and natural science in graduate education for more than a decade,” said Neal Woodbury, deputy director of ASU’s Biodesign Institute. “Most recently, we have been trying to learn how to actually shape early research agendas in the laboratory to optimize the long term societal outcomes. This is a complex problem and represents an entirely new way of approaching science that we, as natural scientists, are unable to do alone."

While not unique to ASU – other groups like the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, the University of Oxford’s James Martin Institute, and scholars in the Netherlands, Belgium, and elsewhere are pursuing similar agendas -- CNS is perhaps the only research center that is able to create synergies among public engagement, foresight and integration of natural and social sciences in order to build anticipatory governance, Guston said.

Anticipatory governance “defrays the inherent contradictions of innovation policy,” Guston states, “while ensuring that public values and foresight accompany scientific practice, keeping the revolution from turning unproductively against itself and our selves.”

David Guston, (480) 727-8829