What is ELSI ?

ELSI is an acronym for Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues. It includes all non-technical issues that arise when developing emerging science and technologies and implementing them in society.

  • The ELSI Research Program was born in the genome analysis project that started in the US in 1990. At that time, the “I” stood for Implications, not Issues.
  • In all, 3% (later revised as “at least 5%”) of the external research budget was allocated to research on ELSI, and several universities subsequently established research centers focusing on ELSI.
  • The concept of “ELSI” has been expanding to other fields, including nanotechnology, brain science, and computer science.
  • In Europe, the concept of ELSI was called ELSA (the A stands for Aspect), and later evolved into a broader concept, “RRI: Responsible Research and Innovation.”
  • In Japan, ELSI has been studied mainly in the field of life sciences, however, in many cases, it takes the form of an external committee, and there are no research programs or centers focusing on ELSI.
  • The 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan addresses ELSI as “ethical, legal, and social issues” in Chapter 6.

Relationship between E, L and S

Among E (ethical), L (legal), and S (social) issues, ethics (E) is the norm that society depends on, which changes over the long term but is stable in the short term. E is expected to be the basis of Law (L). L must be constantly reviewed from E, but is also impacted by society (S). On the other hand, public opinion tends to be volatile.

When emerging technologies are introduced into society, they may not be interpretable under the current laws and regulations (L), or may become illegal if left untouched. For example, when inexpensive drones began to spread, an issue emerged as the aviation law was not adequate for small unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition, emerging technologies may require a new code of ethics (E). New reproductive medicine and transplantation techniques require new ethical norms. The availability of cameras at the end of the 19th century led to the creation of the concept of privacy rights. Social acceptability (S) is also essential for emerging technologies. If society (S) does not accept the technology, even if it complies with laws and regulations (L), the business implementing the technology will be at a reputational risk.

In this way, the innovation of emerging technologies, that is, the spread of emerging technologies to society leading to the creation of new industries and changes in lifestyles, requires an update of Ethical (E), Legal (L), and Social (S) aspects.

A brief history of ELSI (1)

The acronym ELSI was coined by James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix of DNA, who became the director of the Human Genome Institute (HGI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1988. In his speech, he proposed to secure a budget dedicated to research on ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) in the US Government-funded Human Genome Project (HGP). Subsequently, ELSI began as a research program in 1990, and the “I” for ELSI originally stood for “Implications.” The purpose of ELSI research is to predict the potential impact on individuals and society, stimulate public debate, and examine how human genome information can be used to benefit individuals and society, when the human genome is analyzed and sequenced.

Initially, 3% of the HGP research budget was allocated to ELSI research, however, in 1993, the Congress mandated that at least 5% of the external research budget was dedicated to ELSI research. Since 2004, interdisciplinary centers of excellence have been set up at universities across the US. Research expenses related to ELSI increased to a maximum of $25 million (about 2.7 billion yen) per year around 2010. One of the achievements of the US ELSI program was the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which took 13 years from the first bill submission to enactment, and was finally passed in 2008. In Europe, ELSA (“A” stands for “aspect”) was incorporated into the Fourth Framework Programme. The Eighth Framework Programme, launched in 2014, introduced the broader concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

Previously, the term ELSI was mainly used in the field of biotechnology, because it originated with genomic analysis technology. However, in recent years, it has been increasingly used in the context of nanotechnology, information technology, nuclear technology, computer science, and artificial intelligence (AI).

A brief history of ELSI (2)

ELSI is a useful concept in bridging emerging technologies to society and policy. The constant funding of researchers in the humanities and social sciences has been a pioneer, and has several implications for the current need for ethical principles and social acceptability in the application of data science and AI. However, certain disadvantages of the large research budget allocated to researchers in the humanities and social sciences as ELSI research were highlighted. For example, there was a concern that humanities and social scientists incorporated into large science and technology programs would lose their critical stance. The term “ElSIfication” was coined to mock this tendency. Certainly, some may criticize that working only to justify a specific emerging technology cannot be regarded as an academic attitude.

ELSI researchers hired in a large science and technology program may face the choice of sticking to professional integrity, forcing them to abandon their careers or compromise their professional integrity. In ELSI research, it is necessary for us to be aware of the potential for conflicts of interest and to devise mechanisms that do not create conflicts of interest.

In Japan, the “ELSI Working Group” was established in July 2003 under the Promotion Committee to review ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) in the project to realize medical treatment based on individual genetic information as a commissioned research project of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. This was the first instance where a large-scale government-funded research project had an organization that considered ELSI.

Later, it was reorganized into the more independent “ELSI Committee” However, all the members were part-time workers, and their activities were naturally limited. In recent years, the research budget has been gradually increasing, including a request for research on ELSI from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED).

On the other hand, in the Fifth Basic Plan for Science and Technology, Chapter 6, “Deepening the Relationship between Science, Technology, and Innovation and Society,” states that with the increasing need for society to make decisions regarding ethical and legal issues, “In the social implementation of new science and technology, the government needs to provide a suitable forum for formal or informal communication with the various stakeholders, and undertake research on the ethical, legal, and social issues with the participation of a variety of disciplines in the humanities/social sciences and natural sciences.”

April 1, 2020

KISHIMOTO, Atsuo (Director).