What is Proof of Concept Research and how does it Generate Epistemic and Ethical Categories for Future Scientific Practice?

Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (3):735-753 (2016)
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Abstract

“Proof of concept” is a phrase frequently used in descriptions of research sought in program announcements, in experimental studies, and in the marketing of new technologies. It is often coupled with either a short definition or none at all, its meaning assumed to be fully understood. This is problematic. As a phrase with potential implications for research and technology, its assumed meaning requires some analysis to avoid it becoming a descriptive category that refers to all things scientifically exciting. I provide a short analysis of proof of concept research and offer an example of it within synthetic biology. I suggest that not only are there activities that circumscribe new epistemological categories but there are also associated normative ethical categories or principles linked to the research. I examine these and provide an outline for an alternative ethical account to describe these activities that I refer to as “extended agency ethics”. This view is used to explain how the type of research described as proof of concept also provides an attendant proof of principle that is the result of decision-making that extends across practitioners, their tools, techniques, and the problem solving activities of other research groups.

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Catherine Elizabeth Kendig
Michigan State University

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