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The loyalties of knowledge. The positions and responsabilities of the sciences and of scientists in a democratic constitutional state

Research project P5/16 (Research action P5)


Persons :

  • Prof. dr.  GUTWIRTH Serge - Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)
    Coordinator of the project
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2002-31/12/2006
  • Prof. dr.  RAES Koen - Universiteit Gent (RUG)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2002-31/12/2006
  • Prof. dr.  STENGERS Isabelle - Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)
    Financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2002-31/12/2006
  • Prof.  MORMONT Marc - Université de Liège (ULG)
    Not-financed belgian partner
    Duration: 1/1/2002-31/12/2006
  • Prof. dr.  LATOUR Bruno - Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines Paris (ENSMP)
    Financed foreign partner
    Duration: 1/1/2002-31/12/2006

Description :

While no one contests that science and technology have a decisive general impact on our lives, societies and environments, it is surprising on the contrary to see the persistence of the postulate of partition, whereby science is limited to establishing ‘facts’, on the basis of which political deliberation is responsible for determining ‘values’. This thesis ultimately does not explain the myriad dynamic entanglements between science (‘nature’) and society (‘culture’) that have been revealed by both actual scientific experience and practice and the work of certain thinkers (such as Foucault, Serres, Stengers, and Latour) and social protest movements (with regard to biogenetics, the environment, cloning, etc.).

We see as a ‘new fact’ the need to think about science’s impact in relation to the democratic constitutional state. Indeed, such notions or principles as legal mediation between rights and interests, democratic participation, the rule of law, transparency, accountability, public interest, human rights and individual freedom are henceforward part of the constraints surrounding scientific work. However, one must explore the consequences on scientific activity and university education and training, for the pertinence of these notions or principles is contingent on the scientists’ active interest in and openness to the activities and knowledge of his colleagues in other fields and, what is more, fellow citizens. The idea is to produce ‘interesting’ knowledge in the etymological sense of the word, in which interesse (‘to interest’) means creating links, producing possibilities of connecting things. In other words, the question of science’s impact spontaneously leads to the question of the public nature of scientific research, for if science and the democratic constitutional state can be connected, we must ask what position public/general interest might have in carrying out scientific research on the one hand and adopt as a key question in relation to what stakes and by what procedure research can be and become public.

The general objective of this research is thus to conceptualize scientific and technical activity in a democratic constitutional state. In terms of theory, this means rethinking the relationship between science and society by means of the inter- or cross-disciplinary study of two current examples (correlated man and biotechnology and the issue of food security). In terms of the law, it means raising the issue of and defining the demand and the limits of legal mediation with regard to scientific and technical activity. From the point of view of politics and constitutional law, it means thinking up new forms of representation with regard to these same activities, a new balance of powers and transparency. In terms of ethics, we shall have to take stock of the numerous points of friction between scientific practices and ethical issues. From the more concrete or operational point of view we want to come up with proposals for legal, ethical, and other procedural tools that will help put the theoretical and conceptual results of this research into practice.

The main originality of this project is nevertheless educational, concerning training for researchers. Our research is designed as an action research or an ‘experiment’ to conduct interactively with researchers from different walks of life, beyond the barrier of mutual exclusion that is created by ignorance. The question of how to whet a common appetite (create a common interest) from such different ways of seeing things, can be solved only in the field. Thus, through this experiment, our project will try to identify the new urgent training needs that the knowledge-transmitting practices linked to the democratic constitutional state must meet (e.g. in a graduate school). So, in addition to the more traditional targets of ‘knowledge generation’ defined in the various work packages, we shall try to foster the communication of knowledge, in the strongest sense of the word, for here we shall consider knowledge not just as content that everyone can acquire, but as something that must ‘count’, ‘be important’, be part of the way in which a researcher states her/his questions. Our project thus talks of ‘loyalty’, ‘ties’ and ‘attachment’ in order to underline this very challenge.


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