New Technologies as Social Experiments: Conditions for Morally Responsible Experimentation

New Technologies as Social Experiments: Conditions for Morally Responsible Experimentation
VICI project Ibo van de Poel

Technologies like biotechnology, nanotechnology and nuclear energy technology not only bring large social benefits but also introduce potentially catastrophic hazards. Many of the conventional approaches to risk governance are not directly applicable to these fields due to high levels of uncertainty and ignorance about potential hazards. To overcome this problem, the proposed research conceptualizes technology as a form of social experimentation and investigates the conditions under which such social experiments are morally acceptable. In this perspective, introduction of technology into society is not seen as a one-off decision but rather as an ongoing social experiment. On the basis of a conceptualization of technology as social experimentation, conditions for responsible experimentation are proposed and applied to three technological domains: nanotechnology, biotechnology, and nuclear technology. All these domains are characterized by a combination of large potential benefits, potential catastrophic hazards and high levels of uncertainty. On the basis of an evaluation of these domain applications, the conditions for responsible experimentation will be revised and refined. The conditions will also be compared with proposals in the literature on management under uncertainty and ignorance and on the regulation of new emerging technologies. The resulting conditions for responsible experimentation are relevant for national, European and international policy with respect to new technologies. The proposal will also help to find new ground in the stalemate between proponents and opponents of new technologies who both start from the assumption that the introduction of technology into society is a one-off decision while radically disagreeing on what normative and evidential grounds these decisions should be made. Lastly, by applying the notion of social experimentation the proposed research develops a new paradigm for ethical analyses of new technologies, which recognizes that uncertainty and ignorance cannot be fully reduced before new technologies enter society.


1,5 Meuro NWO

Related Scientific publications (selection)


  • Van de Poel, Ibo. forthcoming. Morally experimenting with nuclear energy. In The Ethics of Nuclear Energy: Risk, Justice and Democracy in a post-Fukushima Era, eds. Behnam Taebi and Sabine Roeser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Van de Poel, Ibo. forthcoming. Society as a laboratory to experiment with new technologies. In Embedding and Governing New Technologies, eds. Elen Stokes, Diana Bowman and Arie Rip. Singapore: Pan Stanford Publishing.


  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Governance experiments in water management: From interests to building blocks". Science and Engineering Ethics 16(3) (DOI: 10.1007/s11948-015-9627-3). available online
  • Doorn, N., S.L.S. Spruit and Z. Robaey. 2016. "Editors’ Overview: Experiments, Ethics, and New Technologies". Science and Engineering Ethics 16(3) (DOI: 10.1007/s11948-015-9748-8). available online
  • Spruit, S.L.S., I.R. Van de Poel and N. Doorn. 2016. "Informed consent in asymmetrical relationships: An investigation into relational factors that influence room for reflection". NanoEthics 10(2), pp. 123-138. doi:10.1007/s11569-016-0262-5. available online


  • Taebi, B. and I. R. Van de Poel, eds. 2015. Socio-technical challenges of nuclear power production and waste disposal in the post-Fukushima Era. Special Issue of Journal of Risk Research 18 (3): 267-405. available online
  • Taebi, B. and I. R. Van de Poel. 2015. Socio-technical challenges of nuclear power production and waste disposal in the post-Fukushima Era. Editors' overview. Journal of Risk Research 18 (3): 267-272. available online


  • Robaey, Z. 2014. A commentary on engineering ethics education, or how to bring about change without needing scandals. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 1 (2) 248-249. available online
  • Robaey, Z. 2014. Looking for Moral Responsibility in Ownership: A Way to Deal with Hazards of GMOs. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics: 10.1007/s10806-014-9517-8 available online
  • Wolter Pieters, Dina Hadžiosmanović, and Francien Dechesne. 2014. Cyber Security as Social Experiment. In Proceedings of the 2014 workshop on New Security Paradigms Workshop (NSPW '14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 15-24. available online


  • Doorn, N. 2013. "Wide Reflective Equilibrium as a normative model for responsible governance”. NanoEthics 7/1: 29-43 (DOI: 10.1007/s11569-11013-10169-11563). available online
  • Doorn, N., D. Schuurbiers, I.R. Van de Poel, M.E. Gorman (Eds) 2013. Early Engagement and New Technologies: Opening Up the Laboratory. Dordrecht, Springer.
  • Robaey, Z. 2013. “Who Owns Hazard? The Role of Ownership in the GM Social Experiment.” In The Ethics of Consumption, edited by Helena Röcklinsberg and Per Sandin, 51–53. Wageningen Academic Publishers.
  • van de Poel, Ibo. 2013. Why New Technologies Should Be Conceived as Social Experiments. Ethics, Policy & Environment 16 (3): 352-55.


  • Taebi, B., S. Roeser and I. Van de Poel. 2012. The ethics of nuclear power: social experiments, intergenerational justice, and emotions. Energy Policy (51): 202-206. available online


  • van de Poel, Ibo (2011). Nuclear energy as social experiment. Ethics, Policy and Environment 14(3): 285-290.


  • Jacobs, Johannes. F., Ibo Van de Poel, and Patrica Osseweijer. 2010. Sunscreens with titanium dioxide (TiO2) nano-particles. A societal experiment. Nanoethics 4:103-113. available online


  • Van de Poel, Ibo. 2009. The introduction of nanotechnology as a societal experiment. In Technoscience in progress. Managing the uncertainty of nanotechnology, edited by S. Arnaldi, A. Lorenzet and F. Russo. Amsterdam: IOS Press. available online

Related Professional/Popular publications


  • Van de Poel, Ibo, and Shannon Spruit. 2013. Experimenteren Met Nanodeeltjes in De Maatschappij. Tijdschrift Milieu, 2: 32-35.
  • Van de Poel, Ibo. 2013. Experimenteer (Met Schaliegas)!. In: Jos Baijen (red.) Het beste idee van 2013. Uitgeverij De wereld: 156-157.