Performing ELSA

– Governance of and governmentality in biotechnology and nanotechnology research


The PerformE project is funded by the ELSA-program of the Research Council of Norway in 2014. Its full title is “Performing ELSA: Governance of and governmentality in biotechnology and nanotechnology research”. Begun in September 2014, the project will run for three years.

In PerformE, we explore the interface between steering research and development (R&D) (governance of) and R&D’s self-regulation (governmentality in). In the last decades, researchers increasingly have faced demands to consider ethical, legal, and social aspects (ELSA) of their work and to increase the responsibility and accountability of R&D. We consider ELSA to be an effort to embed emerging technologies in society through what may be broadly considered to be regulatory activities. In particular, large emerging technoscientific programs, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and synthetic biology, are the focus of such activities. That implies that regulatory activities were drawn upstream from products and manufacturing processes to research and, even further upstream, to visionary declarations. Therefore, regulatory activities that are expected from many quarters increasingly will take place in a context where it is not clear who demands regulation, what it is that actually is to be regulated and why, and how and on what grounds regulatory activities could be adopted.

PerformE subscribes to the thesis that science governance has to incorporate “good conduct”, such as democratic deliberations, reflexivity, capacity building, and qualitative assessments. However, for such transformations to be successful, the understanding of the practices and constraints of technoscientific development must be enhanced. This includes the conditions of virtuously enacting ELSA within R&D. This leads to the following research questions:

  • How do scientists and innovators account for the ethical, social, and legal aspects of their research and innovation efforts, and how do they see their responsibility with respect to ELSA?
  • Where do interactions between science and society already take place in the practices of scientists and engineers, and what alternative spaces could they imagine creating? What methods do they perceive to have available to them to enact their concerns? What conditions enable or disable the performance of ELSA?
  • How is science governance actually performed with respect to ELSA? Do we observe the emergence of new regulatory practices, seen from the activities of the scientists and engineers? If we do, how are these changes embedded?