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Interview with the Director of the 4TU.Ethics Center Prof. Marcel Verweij

Published on October, 28 2022

The interview took place on September 23, 2022.

Leon Rossmaier: What is your vision of 4TU.Ethics in terms of its research agenda and its educational role?

Marcel Verweij: We are currently only in the process of thinking and developing a strategy. However, I think that over the last couple of years our graduate school and the PHD community has become increasingly important and is now at the heart of the 4TU.Ethics center. This community is gaining importance due to the esdit (ethics of socially disruptive technologies) research program. The group involved in esdit is expanding so fast that it is important to have a backbone for the education of PhD students and to provide a way for them to connect with each other. This, however, creates a challenge because esdit as a program offers many opportunities for engagement and I see the risk that PhD students might be overwhelmed by all the possibilities to participate in workshops.

From the perspective of 4TU.Ethics, there is also the worry that the focus on the esdit program does not cover the ethics of technology entirely. Something we really need to work on is to make sure that there are sufficient possibilities for cooperation in areas that are not clearly within the boundaries of esdit. This means for instance, thinking more about basic ideas in Responsible Innovation, about the ethical virtues of engineers, or ethical questions concerning less disruptive technologies. I just completed a book on the ethics of vaccination. Is vaccination a disruptive technology? Well, there have been some disruptive discussions in the past few years. But it’s all not that obvious. What I hope to achieve is on the one hand not to worry too much about borderlines; are you inside or outside esdit? This should be something to avoid. On the other hand, I want to make sure that activities, which cannot be organized easily within the esdit framework receive sufficient attention. I think that 4TU has a special responsibility to facilitate those other activities.

We had an interesting discussion at the annual research day on to what extent the 4TU.Ethics center should further strengthen its role on the international level. Jochem Zwier has interviewed a couple of people on how they perceive the 4TU.Ethics center. From an international perspective it is clear that there is a very strong group of people working on the ethics of technology in the Netherlands. But it is not necessarily the case that this work is associated with 4TU.Ethics. I think this is a bit of a struggle for us. My personal view is that 4TU.Ethics should strengthen the ethics of technology in the Netherlands. We do not necessarily need everyone who is working on the ethics of technology to add to the strength (or the brand name) of the 4TU.Ethics center. In that sense, I see the center much more as a means to make our work successful and enhance it.

Moreover, there were quite some thoughts, at the annual research day about creating a network for ethics of technology on the European level. This is something that I think is worth exploring a little bit more. What could we do, what role could we play, what could be the use of a network like this?

Anna Melnyk: You pointed out that there are quite some developments for instance regarding the PhD initiatives and building a PhD community. The well-being of PhDs was a widely discussed topic in the Netherlands and, more specifically, within 4TU.Ethics. How would you envision measures to promote the well-being of PhD candidates, drawing from you own experience as a professor and a former PhD student?

Marcel Verweij: Thinking about my own PhD, the most important success factor was that for a period of a couple of years, me and two other colleagues decided to meet regularly to read each other’s chapters. I had a job in medical ethics in Nijmegen while still working on my dissertation at the University of Utrecht. I think I was in a special situation and the same held for Frans Brom, one of the other members of the group. He is now the secretary and the director of the WRR, the Netherlands council of scientific policy advice. Because we were not in a normal academic context, these meetings were extremely important. I could imagine that something like this is nice to have even when you are well embedded in an organization. For me, this group of three was much more than having colleagues who read my work and provide comments. They were also people who understood the struggles of the whole process and were keen to think about what the next steps could be or how to deal with the comments that I just received from my supervisor. I could imagine that three or four PhDs would meet once in two months perhaps in Utrecht and could come together to discuss one text or something like this. That’s how we did it in the “Pepperbox”, a little bar right next to the railway station in Utrecht. I have excellent memories of this, and it helped me a lot. We could certainly facilitate the creation of such groups.

Leon Rossmaier: The ethics of technology often raises political and societal questions. Do you think that 4TU.Ethics has a responsibility to contribute to public discussions or advice policymakers?

Marcel Verweij: I do not think that 4TU.Ethics should have a responsibility towards politics, although I have done a lot in the past few years in terms of outreach. For instance, talking to advisory bodies, and trying to convince politicians that they should vote against certain proposals for regulations. My own idea is that this work needs to be done by the people who have certain networks and certain connections. I am not sure to what extent the center, as an institute, should play a role in this. The only goal we could aim for is to stand for ethics of technology more generally. What we could do, and I would be keen to contribute to this, is organize workshops to strengthen people’s capacities to engage in public debates. A simple thing, that I have in mind, is the writing of opinion articles. I have written many opinion articles for national newspapers myself in the recent years, and I have found this fun and extremely helpful for my thinking process. It has really helped me to write certain book chapters simply by being involved in a particular debate and formulating an argument in an accessible, nuanced, but still persuasive way.

Anna Melnyk: Thank you very much. Would you like to say anything more?

Marcel Verweij: There is just one more thing I would like to mention. Right now, we are working on a strategy for 4TU.Ethics. Knowing that we are in the luxury situation of having this fantastic ESDIT program, which also raises questions about our own identity, it is now a fruitful time to take ideas from our community, including our PhD students and more senior staff. If anyone has any ideas that might be of interest to 4TU.Ethics, then please contact Mariska Bosschaert-Bakuizen, Jochem Zwier, or the PhD council. This is an open invitation to everyone.

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