VICI grant winner Ibo van de Poel: new technologies should be seen as experiments

01 February 2011 by M&C

TU Delft philosopher Ibo van de Poel has been awarded a VICI grant of around €1.5 million by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). He intends to use the funds to conduct research into the advantages and dangers that new technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology present for society. Van de Poel sees technological developments as social experiments and intends to investigate under which conditions these kinds of experiments are actually admissible.


Dr Ibo van de Poel (1966): “Although technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and nuclear energy can involve significant advantages for society, they also entail a certain degree of risk. For example, nanoparticles could actually be toxic or carcinogenic.”
“Currently, attempts are made to express these dangers in terms of the risks involved. But for new technologies, this is often almost impossible because the dangers are still unpredictable and partly unknown.”


“This is a problem for science and for society as a whole. It represents a problem for science because there is no effective way of judging the acceptability of the dangers of new technologies, since many remain unknown. It is a problem for society because billions of euros are being invested in new technologies by governments and the business community despite the fact that the consequences for society could be enormous, if something goes wrong.”

Social experiment

Van de Poel aims to tackle this problem by considering technological development as a type of social experiment. The aim is to investigate the conditions in which this kind of experimentation would be admissible. “Usually, an attempt is made in advance to express the dangers of a technology as effectively as possible in terms of risks. This is then used as the basis for taking a one-off decision as to whether these risks are acceptable. In the approach I am adopting, we assume that the dangers are not completely known before the technology is tried out in society.”


“This means that it no longer involves a one-off decision as to whether the technology is admissible, but rather an ongoing experiment”, continues Van de Poel. “And of course, these types of experiments are not always admissible and sometimes need to be halted. The research therefore develops a series of conditions according to which these types of experiments can be deemed to be responsible. An example of one such condition is that the scale of the experiment should be initially limited and only gradually increased if everything goes well. Other conditions might include guarantees that people are not exposed to these types of experiments against their will or that the benefits and possible dangers are spread equally across society.”

© 2017 TU Delft