Science, Ethics, and Democracy

Science and technology pose a unique challenge to democratic societies. While scientific knowledge enriches democratic decision making, science also threatens to short-circuit political debate and substitute expert knowledge for political decision-making. Similarly, in democratic societies the regulation of controversial technological innovations cannot be left to experts, and calls for the active engagement of citizens. Climate change, stem-cell research, genomics, nanotechnologies, synthetic biology, and information technologies, comprise some of the more familiar examples of both the promise and challenge that technological innovations have posed in recent years. How do democracies address these challenges? How should science and technology be introduced into democratic societies?

One common, albeit misleading, answer to this challenge is grounded in the familiar distinction between facts and values (or means and ends).  Scientists and technology experts stand on one side of the divide and determine the facts and the means, whereas citizens stand on the other and decide on the values and ends. And yet, the attempt to create a clear division of labor between facts and norms is likely to fail on both ends; the framing of facts is part of a social and political process, and the setting of values often requires an intimate knowledge of how science and technology operate. A different conceptualization of the problem and its possible solutions is required.

The Center invites researchers to explore in more complex and nuanced ways the interaction between science and democracy. Specifically, the research fellows will focus on the interrelationship and interdependence of three dimensions of the problem: science and technology (the facts), ethics and law (the norms), and democratic governance (political institutions). Some of the questions that this framework produces are: How and why do certain scientific discoveries and technological innovations emerge as a source of public deliberation and concern? How is information concerning the promises and risks of science and technology developed, processed and disseminated? What are the normative principles, ethic codes, and legal regulation that are best suited for incorporating science and technology into a democratic society? Which individuals, interests groups, and institutions are involved in the deliberation and decision-making processes? How can these processes be improved to better accord with democratic principles?

The focus on science in democracy is meant to include not only the study of deliberation and regulation on the state level, but also the interplay between the state level and transnational and international norms and institutions including NGO organizations and market forces. The emphasis on democracy implies an interest in comparative work across democracies as well as in a comparison with non-democratic societies. Israel is, in many respects, an ideal lab for the study of these questions, given its high international standing in the fields of science and technology, its unique religious traditions and ethnic composition, and as young country its ongoing endeavors to shape its democratic institutions. The combination of a broad comparative framework and a more narrow focus on the Israeli case will place the Center at the forefront of academic research both nationally and internationally.