Tuesday, 7 December 2010

‘Converging Technologies’ a Contested Concept

Blog post by Shawn H.E. Harmon, Innogen (on Session 3A - Converging Technologies: Promises, Programmes, and Practices)

As pointed out by Prof. Robin Williams, Innogen, co-convenor of this panel, the idea of ‘technology convergence’, an idea explored in a variety of ways and sessions at this conference, has a number of meanings and uses.  This session was not so much about how technologies are converging or how science regulation should or can respond to this phenomenon, but rather what we mean by ‘convergence’ and the baggage that the term carries.

Prof. Alfred Nordmann, Darmstadt Technical U, provided a macro view of the term and its genesis in a 2002 US report and responding 2004 EU report, both of which had competing visions for science.  He showed how we have gradually lost the idea of ‘technologies for …’ (something identified as socially useful) that was present in the US report, and called for a retreat from the generalised hype around technology convergence (and technoscience in general).  He suggested that we need to match our (interdisciplinary) scientific capabilities with societal needs and thereby shape science in concrete ways, and to orient our ‘moral compass’ to enable beneficial uses of the applications that are emerging.

Dr. William Cannell, European Research Council, reiterated the idea that ‘technology convergence’ is a slippery concept.  He described it as a set of ideas which has been used differently in the formation of policy funding strategies, as a descriptor of science dynamism, and as promoter of social transformation.  He cautioned us to consider whether our goals for collaborative technologies or techno/scientific practices are realistic.  A key point that emerged from his talk is that globalisation has resulted in a ‘global innovation race’ which is itself accelerating, and therefore further loading this idea of convergence.

Dr. Robert Doubleday, U of Cambridge, followed up on the idea of ‘technology convergence’ as a descriptive term about how science is currently pursued (and which is used in reference to materials, devices and social systems).  Speaking from the perspective of a social scientist working in a lab, he emphasised the different descriptions of convergence that prevailed within the lab and the different assumptions about where convergence is taking place.

In reply, Robert Wells, OECD, discussed his experiences in a company that was conducting ‘convergent science’ without ever discussing it, but in the knowledge that a shift in how science is conducted was underway.  His ‘take-home’ points were: (1) serious questions remain about where science should be open (and where it should legitimately attract IP protection), which questions are even more pressing in the new highly collaborative setting; and (2) new technologies reliant on interdisciplinarity or convergence can and will be used in ways that implicate different regulatory regimes and policies, so careful thought has to be given to the regimes that are erected and the ways in which existing ones are applied.

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