History and Purpose

What we do at CSTEP

The Center for Science, Technology, Ethics, and Policy is dedicated to the identification, evaluation, discussion, and implementation of ethical and policy issues in contemporary science, engineering, and technology. 

At CSTEP we explore the ethical implications in how the domains of academia, technology, science, and industry are embedded in each other. This means, in the first place, that CSTEP publishing, teaching, and research projects deal with the many and varied ways in which ethical factors are implicated in the unpredictable and indeterminate character of emergent technologies and scientific advances. However, accounting for the interweaving of ethical factors in the scientific and technological domains of contemporary academia and industry means having to also take into account the interdisciplinary and multicultural character of our social and political environments. For example, the kind of mapping done in the human genome project (determining where genes are located on human chromosomes) has only become possible relatively recently with break-through advances in the sciences and extraordinary elevations in the power of computer technology.

This latter sort of activity was made possible by the innovative pairing of computational power with advances in computational decision-making techniques. As an ethical issue, such a project presents us with new possibilities for understanding human biology at the most basic levels but is also accompanied by the indeterminate consequences of what the manipulations of genetic engineering for either health benefits or capitalist profiteering will bring us in the future. This is just one of many emerging issues where science and technology intersect that demand ‘ethical’ attention now and in the foreseeable future. 

Ethics as a face-to-face dialogue 

One of the key identifiers that mark the work that we do through CSTEP is in how we attend to those ethical dimensions in technology and the sciences as face-to-face embodied activities. This means that we are committed to combining research and teaching initiatives in technological and scientific domains that are embedded in social forms that are regulated on various levels by what we call discourse ethics or dialogical ethics. 

This sort of work takes two forms: one, disclosing and/or articulating existing structures in contemporary scientific and technological developments that rely upon unexamined modes of relational bridges; and two, actually constructing new forms of ethical ‘bridges’ that reorient our work and socio-political communities. Such relational bridges already exist in nascent fields such as bio-technology referred to above or in relatively undefined areas such as organic computing that brings together software engineers, neural scientists, and molecular biologists. Another example could be IBM’s autonomic computing initiative. In short, scientists and engineers have already been collaborating in uncharted territories, already at work in creating and sustaining disparate social communities by breaking down barriers in technology and the sciences and recombining their activities in increasingly complex ways. 

We think that there is a congruent need to also provide paths for members of this or that work or social community to grow in healthy and life-affirming ways, both intra- and inter-communally. This means that we have to continue to work at attuning ourselves to the ever-new structures and habitual rhythms that we create through the technological and scientific work that will come to define human endeavors ever more deeply throughout the 21st century. This attuning means, in many cases, re-learning the ethical significance of how and why we transform the world through the sciences that we develop and technologies we create, but to do so by way of a discourse that is only possible in face-to-face embodied relationships. 

One of the approaches that we adopt that guides our teaching and research is an explicitly phenomenologicalapproach which means exploring and analyzing the normative functions of learning and working communities for the ways in which their roles are dynamic, fluid, and determined through linguistic and embodied interrelations. 

An essential premise that guides our research projects, one that enables us to maintain relatively high levels of independence and impartiality, entails a phenomenological commitment to establishing teaching platforms or research projects by suspending as much as possible previously habituated or socially ingrained patterns of learning, especially in the areas of ingrained social norms and ethical prejudices. In order to accomplish this approach, we prioritize the formation of working relationships as collaborative adventures especially those that cross professional, cultural, and national dividing lines. We contend that there is no substitute for practicing a discourse ethics that challenges epistemological preconceptions, psychological presuppositions, and ideological prejudices that most all of us bring to our working relationships. Adopting variations of this multi-perspectival approach is especially pertinent to the kinds of projects upon which we focus in engineering and the sciences, namely, those that are essentially ethically complex. 

The ethical horizons 

Generally, our research projects originate out of both needs and desires. There is a growing and pressing need to address the many ethical problems in our global environment that can be attributed to new forms of technology and science, such as the burgeoning contributions of engineers and scientists to international militarization or environmental crises such as global warming, loss of privacy, or even existential crises such as identity theft or the alienation of living in a technologically supported and scientifically controlled mass society. But ethical complexities in technology and the sciences occur simultaneously and on many levels and at different stages of human development, and are clearly not in every case deleterious. Thus, besides diagnostic and prescriptive endeavors, our desire is to nurture projects and initiatives that seem especially helpful in building good working communities, that is, good in the idealistic sense of helping humans to live lives that are self-sustaining and as non-exploitative as possible—lives that are more fulfilling and enriching for their own sake and for the sake of others. 

Such work is already being done in how engineering principles are currently being applied to the entire spectrum of biological systems, creating revolutionary changes in designing medical devices, diagnostic equipment, biocompatible materials, bionics, prosthetics, sensors, imaging devices, and bioinformatics. With such an entrepreneurial explosion, a significant project for us in the early stages of forming CSTEP has to do with better understanding the phenomenon of attracting and training new members into this or that science or engineering discipline through teaching and apprenticeships. Another important phenomenon that focuses our attention is in how professional practices of those fields, such as the bio-medical or computer-related industries are constrained by or transgress state-mandated policies aimed at industry regulation or promotion. 

The work being done in bio-, or genetic-engineering, nano-technology, or stem-cell research present unique challenges for redefining our ethical sensibilities and call for examining current legislation and dominant social and political norms. Thus, one of our current research projects include exploring the ethical implications of copyright and piracy phenomena and how the interrelations of privacy and surveillance policies are associated with the rapid and unregulated expansion of the internet. In another project, our “Bridges workshop,” we examine the ethical and policy failures and successes of contemporary bridge-building practices set in the context of continuing education mandates for professional engineers. These sorts of CSTEPcenter-sponsored project will become signature projects for us in how they exemplify our desire to develop an awareness of the ethical parameters involved in all levels of our working and social relations.