It’s Time To Frack the Innovation System

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April 11 2012 7:00 AM

It’s Time To Frack the Innovation System

What the history of fracking tells us about our short-sighted R&D system.

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As our technological powers grow, we can no longer chalk things up to unintended consequences. Instead, we need those who design our technical systems to take broader social and ethical questions into consideration. This isn’t a novel insight: In the ‘60s the American musician Tom Lehrer put it in the form of a song about the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “ ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Once the frack fluid is pumped down, who cares where it goes?

For too long, “innovation” has meant just this kind of thoughtlessness, in which questions of social context are not in anyone’s department. Engineering models simplify nature in order to control it. But there is always the danger that the models overlook something important. Unless the models can be challenged and complexified, we won’t know what we have overlooked until it is too late. As with shale gas development, we’ll be forced to try to cobble environmental and social values onto a juggernaut that already has significant momentum.

We need to frack the innovation system—create fissures to let in more people and more perspectives. Researchers must obtain the informed consent of individuals participating in trials of new pharmaceuticals. The same should hold for things like shale gas development that amount to large-scale social experiments. Those of us living atop shale plays have been enrolled as unwilling human subjects of research. There are pitfalls to including the public in science and technology policies: Those who shout the loudest, even if they are a small minority, may end up setting the course. But these problems are no more difficult than those associated with getting gas out of shale. We just have not invested comparable time or intellectual energy into processes of design-by-democracy.


Some might argue that we now account for the broader contexts of innovation through the ethical, legal, and social implications research that often accompanies major R&D projects. Shale gas would have turned out better, they will claim, if it would have had ELSI researchers working in parallel with the scientists and engineers. But too often ELSI researchers dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

More importantly, the ELSI model of innovation reinforces the wall between the two cultures: Humanists do “values,” and scientists and engineers do “facts.” But there is no such thing as “value-free” work. Our innovators cannot help but make choices with social and ethical dimensions. No ethics expert can do this thinking for them. If we want to rid ourselves of a myopic innovation system, then we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who see things in the round.

Adam Briggle is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and a faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.