Saturday, March 19, 2005


Over the flu and the NSF:CNS NSEC grant proposal has been submitted.

James Wilsdon & Rebecca Willis, SEE THROUGH SCIENCE: Why public engagement needs to move upstream, 2004. See DEMOS WEBSITE:


Willis and Wilsdon are both based in London; the former works for the charity Green Alliance and the latter for the thinktank Demos (Thanks to Richard for background information).

The foreword is written by Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency. She posits "designed in the right way, regulation can stimulate innovation." Most of us simply assume regulation stifles commercialization which is not necessarily true. While banning a product or process once it has been adopted might be problematic, when "engagement and dialogue ... take[s] place at the right time and involves the right people", industry can direct their efforts in acceptable and profitable ways. Young identifies two of the issue, we wrestle with regularly. When do we involve the stakeholders? And who are the stakeholders?

Rhetoric aside, we need to decide the setting for involvement, the level of involvement, and what role involvement will play in the decision making process. On many occasions, I have spoken about the consequences of allowing societal and ethical interactions (SEIN) with stakeholders to become symbolic. If societal and ethical interactions are nothing more than perception and fear management, then we risk fracturing the public trust even more than is currently has been abrogated.

Young concludes her forward. "[P]ublic trust in government and its agencies will be enhanced if the role of scientific information in the decision-making process becomes clearer."

Wilsdon and Willis begin the report by heavily referencing Hilgartner's study of some NAS reports in the 80s (see SCIENCE ON STAGE, Stanford University Press, 2000). Professionally, I found his book to be uninspiring and something we'd expect from an undergraduate paper. He beats the "science is like theatre" simile to death. While I am on metaphors, Wilsdon & Willis are equally guilty of taking the acronym PUS and teasing it until the reader might experience mild nausea.

In general, they argue that nanotechnology, esp. the Royal Society report on nanotechnology, "represents a change in the scientific community's approach to the risks, uncertainties and wider social implications of new and emerging technologies." I think many of us involved in SEIN work feel much the same way about the National Nanotechnology Initiative and its recent preoccupation with public involvement. Maybe we will learn something in the process of engaging this initiative which might help us democratize the science and technology decision making process in the United States.

In the first chapter, Wilsdon & Willis ask a question worth considering here. "If we take the case for upstream engagement to its logical conclusion, will it not only change the relationship between science and public decision-making, but also the very foundations of knowledge on which science rests?" (p. 24). First of all, I am not sure what this means? Is it calling for a redefinition of scientific objectivism? Is it calling for a reintegration of the scientific way of thinking with the ideologies that helped science move into the public gaze? Who knows for sure? BUT I remain a strong advocate on being much more conservative with our rhetoric. Before we construct a challenge to scientific knowledge per se, we may want to make some dents into the current hierarchy of power with modest public engagement.

Chapter two discussed a subject that needed to be raised: "The Tyranny of Risk Assessment." They write: "risk management... has become a dominant discourse within public service delivery" (p. 26). They continue: "most forms of public participation are focused on downstream risks... reflecting the false assumption that public concerns are only about instrumental consequences and not... about what human purposes are driving science and innovation" (p. 27).

Simply put, the decisions are made upstream and the participation occurs downstream where the public has no agenda-setting input. Let's take this illustration. One of the first applications of nanoparticles involves cosmetics, especially sun screens. The public is being asked to help decide how to make the use of nanoized particles of titanium oxides safe rather than asking them to decide whether nanoized particles of any sort should come in direct contact with skin. Consider a larger illustration. The public is being asked how to regulate nanotechnology per se when the question whether their tax dollars should be spent promoting nanotechnology has never been asked at all.

Wilsdon & Willis add a second concern. "[T]he task of defining what the salient issues are within the process of public engagement automatically falls to experts, leaving citizens with no capability not proper role in automatically creating and negotiating more diverse public meanings" (p. 27). On the next page, they asked these questions. "Why this technology? Why not another? Who needs it? Who is controlling it? Who benefits from it? Can they be trusted?..." (p. 28). These questions are not rhetorical.

Upstream participation requires that "some of these questions [are returned] to the negotiating table, and to do so at a point when they are still able to influence the trajectories of scientific and technological development" (p. 29). THIS IS THE CORE OF THEIR ARGUMENT.

I have written elsewhere about CAN/SHOULD CONUNDRUM in science. Simply put, science does things because it can rather than it should. And every solution to a scientific or technological problem seems to be another scientific or technological fix. More of this in a later post.

While I grow incredibly weary of the tired metaphor between GM and nanotechnology, I accept the fact that it won't go away anytime soon. Nonetheless, the authors use it and the GM Nation initiative as a virtual lesson in what SEIN research may need to confront in dealing with the nanotechnology juggernaut.

The most intelligent part of the report covers the means for public engagement and unlike too many of my peers; they admit there is no silver bullet. Public engagement will be a variety of means.

This report is recommended.


Richard Jones said...

A nice summary, but to be pedantic I should mention that neither of the authors of this pamphlet is at Lancaster University. Willis and Wilsdon are both based in London; the former works for the charity Green Alliance and the latter for the thinktank Demos. But Wilsdon does collaborate extensively with people at Lancaster.

Grampa J said...

Hi All
I am looking for some work in the demos fields and found a new site Thought I would mention it so others can check it.Thank you

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