This book would not have come into existence without the unfailing support of Nicolas Cuneen, Oleg Bernaz and Ewa Stasiak (CPDR).

I would also like to thank Professor Bernard Reber for his continued trust and Professor Jacques Lenoble for his inspiring force.

Responsible Research and Innovation Set

coordinated by
Bernard Reber

Volume 6

Reflexive Governance for Research and Innovative Knowledge

Marc Maesschalck

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Volume 3 of the Responsible Research and Innovation Series (Volume 2 in French) From Ethical Review to Responsible Research and Innovation compares the various forms of ethics in research (integrity, protection of individuals and ethical review of projects to be financed) to the commitments of responsible research and innovation (RRI). Governance is an essential condition for the success of RRI. It contributes to a multiplication of perspectives that favor ethical deliberation. As one of the pillars of RRI, governance could enable a more active approach to ethical concerns, which are understood broadly as well beyond the individual ethics of researchers and engineers. Governance is tasked with regulating cooperation between actors with different identities, interests, care capacities and responsibilities. Their different backgrounds are also motivated by varying expansionary rationales that sometimes conflict with uncertain and contingent relationships to borrow an important term from the title of Volume 1, Ethics and Efficiency: Responsibility and Contingency. If RRI favors the inclusion of participating parties, interest groups or citizens in the processes of research and innovation, it must be concerned with governance to imagine accepting this inclusion, in line with various lists of international evaluation criteria.

The increased importance of governance is not only a consequence of globalization and the redistribution of tasks, and thus responsibilities, between state and private and public institutional actors. It is also at the center of the European integration. This space is a common site of experimentation with differing norms tested by crises and the solutions created in response. As early as 2001, governance was the subject of reports published by the European Commission. It highlighted new concerns associated with five principles: efficiency, consistency, participation, transparency and (the key element for RRI) sharing responsibilities. Thus, RRI is centrally tied to the entire European structure, not only in areas of innovation and research.

However, watchwords such as partnership and participation or even terms that were later associated with them, like transparency and responsiveness, strive for a concept of governance that goes well beyond mere regulation. Governance, as one of the pillars of RRI, can only be called ethical and thus truly responsible when closely associated with freedom – recalling the title of Volume 2 in the series, Responsibility and Freedom. This is another path that this new volume takes, which is certainly not incompatible. It asserts that we must explain what we mean by different additions or qualifiers associated with governance. They can cover very different practical realities depending on the theoretical orientations assumed. It is not enough to thematize the old modes of government that we claim to have moved past. We must still be convinced that the new ways of governing really are new and that they measure up as a responsible governance for innovation and research. Marc Maesschalck’s reflexive governance, which he identified after studying different models of governance over many years, is dynamic enough to accommodate this concern. In passing we will see that it is distinct from the project of meta-governance proposed by the European research project about RRI, ResAgora1. The Belgian philosopher begins his work with an epigraph chosen from the work of the famous science philosopher Georges Canguilhem: “to make use of data in the course of a pre-existing practice, that practice must be translated into conceptual terms; theory must guide practice, not the other way around.” There is thus no place in this volume for an approach that would be satisfied with a too comfortable descriptivism. This all too common approach reduces governance to an emerging public practice rather than approaching it as a collective action coordinated by normative guidance. In fact, when the question of a new approach to ways of governing in the public interest is necessary, and must be accompanied by new methods of regulation, the question cannot be reduced to a change of hand in the center of authority or a simple balancing act between self-regulating subsystems. The author opens the “black boxes” of identity and the frameworks of action, both individual and collective, to elaborate a comprehensive and critical approach.

Reflexive governance is very ambitious. It is an experimental process that transforms the roles and forms of normative production. The innovative interpretation of norms comes to modify the behavior of the actors involved, individuals and institutions alike. This form of governance, when realized, is built on action understood as the meeting process of different interests and competing methods and knowledge in accordance with a collective process of inquiry that tends toward the resolution of problems. At the same time, this action process has effects on the participating parties as soon as the action is completed. Such a model avoids the privilege accorded to secure representations that are fixed with the identity of idealized agents. Another advantage is that this model of governance passes the test of transferability between different environments with spontaneous references particular to formative and enunciative spaces. This is important because it is a condition of mutual learning and appropriation. Envisaged in this way, governance can better resist risk of capture, counteraction or dissolution by innovative propositions.

This depth of questioning is not a theoretical luxury. On the one hand, the practice of implementing elaborated modes of governance is paved with such problems, and on the other hand, these modes draw attention to the real learning of the participants. I would add that this type of governance makes it possible to face uncertainties. Yet, these often crystallize criticisms such as the limits of utilitarian or calculative notions of responsibility that come from some RRI analysts. We may rightly ask ourselves, why appeal for the inclusion of interest groups to teach them nothing and learn nothing from them? This learning process must be established as necessary and not simply as an artificial token of participation to appease citizens and consumers.

Practically when reflexive learning focuses on modifying interpretive habits and routines, it makes it possible to better anticipate the risks of resistance and repetition. In this way, it can open up new possibilities and broaden traditional roles. Neither RRI nor other modes of governance are simply idle or ineffective stories, or simply a set of standards that must be obeyed by without interpreting, implementing and improving them. This reasoning is reminiscent of the philosopher Jean Ladrière, who provided useful insight on the subject of norms and their contexts of interpretation. The use of norms is modified depending on the needs of common experimentation and the fair sharing of knowledge about the conditions of their application. We go through a process of progressive reworking the normative expectations of different parties.

The governance supported by Marc Maesschalck is thus accompanied by a systematic and continuous organization of reflexivity in the monitoring of participation, action, modalities of conduct and even evaluation. Carrying out the processes of negotiated regulation, which he likens to deliberativism in political theory, must allow for a radical transformation of the relationships toward the norms as a pragmatic meaning of an inferential relationship to the norms, rather than in a singular and fixed expression. Norms produce their meaning progressively during the negotiated process of their application.

The recognition of conflictuality by Maesschalck is welcome if the expected governance falls within the political realm, the site of conflict recognition and treatment par excellence. This is just as true in the domain of emerging technologies and innovations that have come to reconfigure the identities and interests of the publics that are affected differently by resulting changes. This has been the case since the pragmatist John Dewey wrote his famous work, The Public and its Problems (1927), but is now more akin with the fertile field of institutional innovations in the participatory technology assessment (PTA). Volumes 4 and 5, Precautionary Principle, Pluralism and Deliberation: Science and Ethics and The Hermeneutic Side of Responsible Research and Innovation will go into more detail about the interdisciplinary and theoretical aspects under different generations and types of innovations: genetically modified organisms, synthetic biology, nanotechnologies, “enhanced” humans and animals, autonomous technologies, or robots.

This volume will also open a discussion with Volume 4 (Volume 3 in French), particularly concerning a double deliberation on the ethical and political level and the awareness of a double pluralism therein. The current volume highlights the ability of actors to participate in the transformation of their organization by mobilizing their respective capacities to combine a variety of perspectives with the common interest of finding a way to progressively modify how they contribute to its success. This goes beyond certain theoretical limits of a proceduralization of the theory of deliberative democracy and is also much closer to the conduct of real experiences, whether they are PTA, RRI, or other forms of cooperation. Responsible involvement is implemented under the authority of a governance that is itself continuously guiding a process of negotiating and applying both factual and normative significations. Note that the normative description of governance given here focuses on different understandings of responsibility, mentioned in Volume 2, notably as task, role and accountability. Subject to engagements with the process, these modifications permit not only an appropriate sharing of responsibilities but also the modification of them and their respective norms.

Echoing the Foucauldian distinction that invites us to step out of the episteme of government in favor of entering the episteme of governance, this work moves beyond functional versions of governance. It proposes a more structured version of this RRI pillar through the shifting of practices already practiced, translated into concepts and directed.

Bernard REBER
December 2016


“… to make use of data collected in the course of a preexisting practice, that practice must be translated into conceptual terms; theory must guide practice, not the other way around” [CAN 88, p. 110].

The theories of governance developed over the last 20 years provide us with a new framework for considering the collective conditions of responsible research and innovation (RRI) in conjunction with the political challenges of a society in transition in all of its regulatory aspects, including security, financial and environmental elements. However, governance falls short of the ideals established through reflections on RRI. Approaches in terms of governance theory remain marginal, and its fundamental aspects are poorly understood in the context of research work and recommendations on the subject. The functional aspects of decision implementation involved in governance are at play here, but not the critical fundamental approach that focuses on changing practices and reconstructing both roles and identities of action. We are faced with a paradox: relevant reflections on the governance of RRI, or even on governance as one of the pillars of RRI, are entirely satisfactory in functional terms; however, the connection between an approach constructed using a theory of governance of RRI and a shift in existing practice is lacking. This situation is all the more regrettable given the emergence of a reflexive governance model within the context of scientific debate in recent years [DES 10, BRO 12, BAU 06]. To take full account of this hiatus and the inherent risks for current injunctions in terms of RRI, we need to consider these elements directly from the perspective of different epistemic frameworks offered by different approaches in terms of governance theory, and to identify the ways in which they may contribute to the construction of an RRI policy.

The paradoxical element that, we feel, requires the most urgent attention lies in the fact that practical interest for governance mechanisms deflects attention from the fundamental questions of governance theory and the benefits they may confer. On the one hand, any theoretical approach to RRI, and any proposal of a coherent framework for the implementation of RRI, must take into account governance questions that are intrinsically linked to the conditions of success for this approach. The simple fact of promoting increased cohesion in current research processes, holding them accountable and increasing sensitivity in this area, making them more reactive or even proactive in this respect, inevitably leads us to consider how commitments may be evaluated, including the procedural elements relating to their governance. Increasing the legitimacy and social relevance of commitments in research and innovation also involves increasing their interaction with stakeholders in civil society, promoting more participatory models for problem solving, and improving monitoring of these practices using indicators that are more directly linked to the quality of commitments made in this direction. In this respect, there is an ideal opportunity for new approaches to governance to take a front seat in the field of added value created by socially responsible research practices.

However, alongside this movement, which has indisputable social implications, we also see that the theoretical aspect of current developments in the field of governance is completely absent from the RRI sector. While many innovative proposals have been made involving a pragmatic shift in governance toward increasing participation, co-construction of solutions, co-design and the comparison of best practices, the theoretical choices that guide these shifts and help us to understand potential risks and areas of incompatibility are noticeably absent. More fundamental epistemological issues are also involved in this proliferation of ideas and practices, notably in terms of their ability to take account of certain assumptions concerning the adaptation of actors to these new conditions of action, the collective anticipation of new risks, the contractualization of these risks, the assessment of possible effects of social resistance, free riding, suboptimality, etc. An approach based on governance theory would allow us to envisage all of the implementation mechanisms involved and to translate expectations expressed in terms of operationalization. Above and beyond avoiding a minimalist execution of bureaucratic injunctions, support is also needed for the transformations of action identities that implicitly result from this type of approach. A collective experimentation framework will not suffice.

In theoretical terms, reflexive governance offers a model centered on the collective construction of responsibility, with the aim of accumulating new knowledge resulting from the organization of partnerships between researchers and those on the ground [LEN 03, DED 14]. This model attempts to prioritize the effects of actors’ engagement in cooperative actions, shared in such a way as to create the conditions for accumulation of new knowledge via collective testing of solutions. These reflexive mechanisms for self-confrontation of knowledge and the self-assessment of norms provide a collective action framework that enables a better understanding of the benefits obtained from networking and partnerships in the production of research and innovation. In order to develop an RRI approach from the reflexive theory of governance, we must use certain theoretical resources that are not particularly well known to authors active in this area. Alongside organizational theory and political science, particularly neo-institutionalism, we must also make use of different philosophical theories of the “norm” and collective action, legal theory, and the advantages gained from a pragmatist turn taken in the field of the humanities, particularly via the development of the concept of social learning.

In order to clearly define this theoretical shift, we have chosen to begin this introduction with a brief quotation from Georges Canguilhem, a philosopher and historian of science: “to make use of data collected in the course of a preexisting practice, that practice must be translated into conceptual terms; theory must guide practice, not the other way around” [CAN 88, p. 108]. This extract hints at a certain dialectic shift, from practice to the action of governance, via theorization. Following this movement, there are two major prerequisites for the efficient governance of research. First, we must reconsider the identity tied up in an existing research practice, and defined principally by this practice; second, research must be conceptualized as a process of action that may be understood in terms of the meaning and social added value of its organization. If we wish to direct research, it is not enough to accompany and create mechanisms for monitoring practice. We must also conceptualize its potential for self-transformation, and for challenging its assumptions in terms of its interest, role and identity, in order to anticipate benefits that may initially appear irrelevant or outside of current usage.

The extract from Canguilhem also highlights the idea that specific stakes are involved in creating a capacity for research governance, which moves beyond assumptions on the basis of current practice. Furthermore, it hints at the mediating role that theorization may play in establishing the conditions for governance of this type. Reflexive governance theory may, moreover, constitute the only means of avoiding, in terms of research processes, something that Canguilhem had already noted and criticized in terms of the relationship between behavioral experts and human individuals. Canguilhem deplored the epistemological poverty of disciplines that were unable to “situate their specific behavior in relation to the historical circumstances and social circles within which they propose their methods and techniques and aim to gain acceptance for their services” [CAN 02, p. 377]; at the same time, he feared that this shortcoming might conceal an unconsidered choice, which was even more problematic, based on utilitarian behaviors1. This choice would involve putting questions of utility before questions of meaning, and treating the relationship with the social context in terms of an organizational science, aiming to optimize the learning and adaptation performances of collective intelligence. This approach to science contains an implicit idea of intelligence as measured by social utility; developed to its fullest extent, the function of research and innovation in sciences would be to guarantee the adjustment of human systems for the production of means to interact with their environmental context.

Canguilhem considers that even if this organicist approach to the social performance of science was twinned with a mechanistic approach, aiming to isolate a specific function of collective programming and directing the functional adjustment process from the exterior, it would not be possible to overcome the initial reflexive shortcoming, which would limit the whole of the approach to its interest in terms of utility. There is an illusory idea of an assumed state of social utility, allowing proponents to enter into the context of a tendering process formulated by the market or the state, without looking beyond or overcoming a perceived sense of urgency, requirement or necessity, which determines the relationship with the common interest. The real question to be posed concerns the placement of an intellectual disposition in relation to social interest. This question requires us both to know what form this social interest may take and to understand the relationship that a certain form of scientific organization might have with this interest. The only way to answer this question is to create a distinction between science and the ways in which it is organized. There is no way to guarantee a convergence of social interest and science in a strictly immanent way by supporting and promoting the capacity for self-regulation, just as this convergence cannot be ensured by programming results from the outside.

As our brief extract from Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences demonstrates, the problem needs to addressed from another angle, that of reflexivity, which explicitly defines the meaning of a “relation to historical circumstances and social circles”, allowing us to envisage a suitable form of governance for research and innovation processes. In this case, we do not simply consider research in terms of its utility for the mechanisms of governance, as a function to invoke and control in order to increase collective aptitude to produce solutions. Instead, the aim is to initiate a collective process to transform the relationship of all of the actors concerned with their action identities, creating favorable conditions for the implementation of new forms of cooperation in the co-construction of social interests.

The hypothesis of reflexive governance, which we intend to develop within the framework of an RRI policy, is thus based on a bipartite theoretical shift. First, the hypothesis translates the question of RRI onto the plane of a theoretical approach to governance; giving a direction for research requires us to conceptualize the action involved in this research as a process where different and competing interests, methods, and knowledge meet, according to a collective process of enquiry for the purpose of solving problems. Second, the hypothesis shifts the theoretical focus onto a problem of reflexivity that is inherent in the operation of governance, i.e. the specific process by which an action acts on itself during its own implementation. The idea is that elucidating this particular relationship of the action to itself, resulting from the task of governance, gives us a greater ability to anticipate the risks of resistance and repetition that arise when attempting to modify interpretative habits and routines in order to expand the relationship to possibilities and expected roles.

We shall take a progressive approach to this hypothesis and its consequences, starting from the first shift. From this starting point, we shall consider (Chapter 1) why an approach in terms of governance theory has been lacking in the field of RRI, although the subject of governance is used in describing the modes of implementation. We shall then explain (Chapter 2) how the theory of governance has developed, and how reflexivity in relation to a second mode was included from the outset in order to complete an organizational action plan. Following this, we will examine this first “genealogy” of governance theory, which leads on to our second shift, concerning reflexivity. Our objective is to demonstrate (Chapter 3) the advantages to be gained from a more rigorous treatment of reflexivity considered as a front-line operation, allowing us to explore an internal zone of development within action. This forms the basis for a discussion (Chapter 4) of the main aspects of a reflexive governance theory. In Chapter 5, we shall demonstrate the advantages of this approach when it is used explicitly to tackle the conditions for implementing an RRI policy. Chapter 6 is devoted to a reconsideration of the proposed approach, this time from the perspective of the political philosophy of intellectual intervention in the surrounding society.