The democratic responsibility of scientific power

Public governance of science challenges the very same definition of what is considered scientific, and therefore in a variety of respects, elitist, closed and unaccountable to the laymen before the fact. However, in today's knowledge society science is under pressure to open up and include the opinions of a wider and better informed part of the population with the means to control the work of scientists and participate in the political debate on scientific governance. In nuce, citizens are being involved now more than ever to express their opinions with reagards to many matters of science and policy in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

Massimiano Bucchi points out that the more science advances, the more society seem to make resistance. What could explain such a situation? It should be acknowledged that there is still a lack of the appropriate opportunities and frameworks of communication between citizens and policy makers, scientists and politicians and sometimes indeed also between scientists themselves.

Nevertheless, scientific discovery is a primary determinant of progress in the most diverse arenas, from global governance to innovation in medicine and health, genetically modified organisms and nuclear energy. Therefore the question is not just about what role should scientists have, but also how can scientists inform citizens better and how can they help to bridge the various communication failures in the formation of public decisions related to the safety and security of innovations in the area of science and technology?

A citizen which refuses to buy a product containing genetically modified organisms makes a decision which has also indirect political consequences. However, the time it takes to feed-back this choice is longer than, say, a referendum which is a more direct method of representation in which the outcome of a choice is known relatively faster than in the previous example. This knowledge empowers policy makers with the authority to decide over the introduction of technologies in the public domain based on their perceived impact.

I would like to quote an article of Jacques Testart ( only avaialble in French, but see also the note [ * ] below) published in Le Monde in September 2000. Albeit I personally do not entirely agree with its premise, alias that political decisions cannot find a foundation in science, I agree with its distinction about the need to distinguish between ethical, scientific and political judgement. These three distinct realms of authority for decisions regarding policy-making have the power to exert a great influence in the political debate determining which truth can be considered socially acceptable. Science, for instance, has historically been among the primary source of reference to guide political decisions from safety regulations setting the level of acceptable risk, including the maximum acceptable exposure of the brain to electronic waves.

However, ethical and even more so, political judgements represent very different rationalities. These are highly polarised and many of the clashes and conflicts over the positions of the various stakeholders lies primarily in their beliefs of the appropriateness of the sources of knowledge and the methods of production of the same. These standpoints can be discussed at various length, in particular with readers wishing to expand these ideas, but for the purposes of the current article, it suffices to say that this creates clashes at various nodes of the science-policy nexus.

It is possible to delineate two different abstract principles which guide these decisions. On one hand is the principle of responsibility, which is based the ethical foundation of scientific rationality. A call to the universal principle of giving trust to the experts to provide appropriate representations of the world. This is a clear epistemological choice, opposite to the precautionary principle, which instead rejects this view because, as Testart explains, it would only lead to compromise. His argument is that the scientist himself does not 'know' and, for this reason, is not exempt from prejudices of various types. This situation creates a dysfunction among institutions, organisations and individuals, whereas in the knowledge society one of the most timely issue concerns the design of a new policy-mix for the governance of issues of collective concern and to reach a broad-based agreement for decisions regarding the emerging opportunities and threats in the field of science and technology.

The present condition of uncertainty makes it difficult to promote scientific rationality alone and therefore it is important to take into account also the indeterminacy of the role of the experts until such innovations become stable and accepted constructs of society. This is not to say that the role of science falters as a result, otherwise. Understanding the impact of these innovations requires scientific knowledge, research and testing while it is the responsibility of the impact of these innovations that is political. Foresight and the capacity to prefigure a possible future are not typical of the rigor of scientific method and should therefore be discussed in the political realm.

However, it would be useful to make a clarification about the above opposing positions, and in particular about the role of experts (and especially the scientists for what matters in our current discussion). That is because innovations introduced by modern technologies from information and communication to bio and nano -technologies nowadays represent the crucial node of the debate centred on the sustainability of economic growth of developed as well as less developed nations, with serious consequences on the most disparate areas of policy making. Including, but perhaps not only, the policies of technology standards and agreement for international development and the regulation of the productive activities which govern trade and exchange between nations.

As it has been stressed many times in this blog, discoveries are neither good nor armful per se. It is the process of translation of the discovery into innovation which could result in a series of unpredictable events transforming even the best of the initial intentions into a the unfolding of undesirable and/or unpredictable events. Therefore, it is in the process of democratic responsibility that trust can be created to promote innovations which support the well being of society as a whole and therefore in its structures and, as pointed out by Michel Callon, in its capacity to mobilise the knowledge of laymen to legitimate decisions. Certainly there is not one single best method, but perhaps combining a referendum with more dynamic and participatory experiments of deliberative democracy (from citizen juries to on-line consenus conferences) could balance democratic control and progress while avoiding the communication failure which could lead to detrimental outcomes for society as a whole.

[ * ]Unitl May 2003 Jacques Testart was director of research at Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) and president of the Commission française du développement durable (French Commission on sustainable development).

See the thread on Jacques Testart and the precautionary principle on the FGB web-site (only availalbe in Italian).

See also the article on 'Scientific Governance', the pathway on the precautionary principle in this website and Testart's most recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique - available only in French and Italian.

(Posted by Daniele Navarra at 1 May, 2005) --- Permalink ---