Research Funding and the Good Life

Workshop at the University of Twente (NL)

March 17-18 2009


Dr. Simone van der Burg (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Twente)

Prof. Dr. Robert Frodeman (Dept. of Philosophy and Religion Studies, University of North Texas)

Advisory Committee:

Dr. Britt Holbrook (Dept. of Philosophy and Religion Studies, University of North Texas)

Prof. Dr. Carl Mitcham (Dept. Liberal Arts and International Studies, Colorado School of Mines)

Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra (Dept. of Philosophy, University of Twente)

This workshop will examine differences between US and EU/Dutch ways of assessing the societal relevance of broader impacts of science and technology. During this workshop we hope to come to a constructive exchange between Dutch and American philosophers and representatives of the different funding institutions about (1) how ‘societal relevance’ or ‘broader impacts’ are to be understood ethically and in what way good life ethics is helpful for this understanding and (2) what role a funding institution could have in realizing a reflective scientific practice, which deals responsively with the impacts of future technologies on human (social) life.

It is by now common to observe that during the past three decades a gradual transformation has taken place in the way that scientific research is organized and discussed. In the traditional framework, which was common ground in the decades following World War II, researchers enjoyed independence, developing their own research topics and practices, the results of which were made available to society by means of publication and teaching. Over the last 15 years, however, scientific research is increasingly understood as a research practice on which society depends for important benefits such as international competiveness, and the creation and preservation of wealth, and the enhancement of the quality of life.

The altered relation between society and science also motivated a change in the ways in which research is evaluated. Scientific criteria such as originality and methodological rigor can not be the only criteria with which technology research is judged, when scientific technology research projects are required to respond to industrial developments, regional and governmental policies, and individual and social needs. Scientific experts lack the competence to judge all these aspects of research. This is the reason why funding institutions in the Netherlands have showed an increasing interest in the inclusion of other parties – such as producers and users – within the evaluation committees which are thought to be able to identify the ‘social relevance’ of research.

In the US there is increasing interest in the ‘social relevance’ of technology research as well. Since 1997, and with growing emphasis, the National Science Foundation (NSF) bases the peer review of grant proposals on two criteria: the ‘broader impacts’ and the ‘intellectual merit’ of the proposal. Nonetheless, NSF reviewers often struggle to understand the proper relation between intellectual merit and broader impacts, and indeed whether it is possible even distinguish the two concepts.

In this workshop we will explore different ways to think about the content of ‘social relevance’ and ‘broader impacts’ of scientific research. On the basis of knowledge about the ways in which new technologies impact on the individual and social life of people, we want to discuss how and to what extent research funding practices are able to contribute to the development of a research practice that makes reflections about the good life an accepted part of their daily routine. In order to make the discussion intellectually stimulating, but also practically relevant, representatives of the public research funding institutions that finance technology research within the Netherlands will be invited to participate in the discussion.

Possible questions to address during the workshop are:


How can ‘broader impacts’ or ‘societal relevance’ be ethically understood?


What is a reflective technology research practice and how does it differ from the present situation?


What are the obstacles to the formation of a reflective research practice in the Netherlands and the US? Which ones of those obstacles are brought about by the present evaluative objects of the funding practices?


Is it (and to what extend is it) the responsibility of funding practices to deal with questions about the good life?


What views of the good life are inherent to the present evaluation of research-projects by funding institutions? And what are alternative views to the good life?


What are the (practical) obstacles the funding practices face to make room for these alternative views of the good life?


In what ways is ethics understood in the present practice of research funding and what does this leave out of scope?

This workshop has been made possible with financial contributions of:


The University of Twente (Faculty of Behavioral Sciences)


Stichting Technologie en Wetenschap (STW)


The 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology


UNT’s Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity's CAPR project


Hennebach Program in the Humanities