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Home > Newsletter > Issue no. 6 - 2003

Issue no. 6 - 2003

by Redazione FGB [1], 3 December 2003

In recent months, the site has seen an intensive use of Web Logs ("Blogs") and interaction with the public through Calls for Comments (CfCs).

Our first web space in CfC form was the one conducted by Daniele Navarra in June of this year, entitled "Innovation, Social Risk and Political Responsibility". Since then we have used this channel for collective writing to address in a focused and collaborative way those issues that have turned out to be most significant as the site has developed.

From 18 September to 14 November, the sociologist Giuseppe Pellegrini conducted the CfC on the project "Partecipazione pubblica e governance dell'innovazione (una proposta di sperimentazione istituzionale sul tema delle biotecnologie)" (Public Participation and the Governance of Innovation (a proposal for institutional experimentation on the subject of biotechnology)).

The intention in this CfC was to bring together comments regarding a highly innovative policy experiment. The Bassetti Foundation had been asked by the regional government of Lombardy to ascertain whether, faced with the need to take difficult decisions (difficult in themselves and with respect to their possible political and consensus-related implications), a democratic institution - in this case, Lombardy Region - could improve its decision-making methods and, if this were the case, to draw up and suggest suitable procedures. Various categories of actors (entrepreneurs, scientists, policy-makers, consumers and environmentalist associations) involved in one way or another in the issue of innovation in the biotechnology field were asked to take part in this process.

The CfC entitled "No Innovation without Representation (A Parliament of things for the new Technical Democracies)", opened on 27 October and conducted by the sociologist Massimiano Bucchi, was connected with the invitation extended by the Bassetti Foundation and the Politecnico to the sociologist Bruno Latour to give a lecture in Milan. This CfC served to introduce, accompany and support the arguments covered by Latour in his essay "What rules of method for the new socio-scientific experiments?" and discussed in his lecture on 17 November.

In his essay, Latour touches on many of the key themes of his thinking: the increased participation of non-experts in the practice of science, the blurring of the borderlines between science and politics, the new forms of representation of technical and scientific innovation, and the emergence of "hybrid forums" (situations of governance where the representatives of "natural things", such as meteorological events or the discoveries of genetic engineering, and the representatives of human society both need to be taken into equal consideration), which should lead to new political arrangements being put in place.
In addition to the material providing detailed background to the CfC, Margherita Fronte's interview with Latour during his very full day in Milan was also published in the site.

Another CfC, this one still in progress, opened on 31 October with the bibliographic study on Innovation and Responsibility in the Information Society, edited by Leone Montagnini. An English-language version of the introduction was written by Daniele Navarra, who, together with Vittorio Bertolini, is conducting the CfC with the intention of compiling a constantly evolving bibliography, or work in progress, open to contributions from the public and able to develop within a cultural community.

The other form of communication and exchange of views with readers that is making headway in the site is made up, as we said at the beginning, of Blogs, a form of publication that is open to input from readers.

In recent months, another two Blogs have been added to those already present on the site. One, "Kata Gene", by Massimo Bartoli and Gian Maria Borrello, is intended to provide news, guides to interpretation and pointers regarding scientific and technological innovations and applications that might well have an impact on our lives. The aim of the other, "Innovation, Risk and Governance", by Daniele Navarra, is to become a point of aggregation for researchers and academics from different cultural backgrounds with a view to establishing an agenda for inter-disciplinary research around the issues suggested in the title. The implications of the concept of "innovation" as a key element in the transition from traditional social, decision-making and organisational models to models for a modern knowledge- and information-based society, can be applied on several levels: from IT in government to biotechnologies, thus providing an "open platform" for discussion and the exchange of knowledge.

In the last few months the "Topics" section, the core of the site, has increasingly developed as a connective space for items by the editorial staff and other authors (collaborators or readers). Once again, Blogs and CfCs act both as sources for and ramifications of ideas for this section.

The review in the Topics section on Sheila Jasanoff's book "Science at the Bar", for example, is developed in the Blog of Vittorio Bertolini's press review. Jasanoff's book observes the increasingly frequent phenomenon whereby judges are required to rule on issues such as environmental pollution, biotechnologies, genetics, the harmful effects of pharmaceuticals or the adequacy of medical treatments, often in the absence of specific laws governing these issues. These problems fall within the realm of Scientific Governance: see, for example, the article of this name in Topics, which reminds us that, according to Jacques Testart, "political decisions cannot be based in science". In Testart's opinion, we need to reinforce the information, consultation and negotiation procedures that safeguard the democratic functioning of our institutions. To do this, as the sociologist Michel Callon asserts, we also need to bring into play the knowledge of "non-experts", so that their "specific expertise" might enable the local issues at stake to be viewed freely. Testart also warns against confusing scientific evaluations with political ones or with ethical judgements.

In examining the "science-politics" relationship, a number of aspects can be taken into consideration, ranging from methodological discourse to the day-to-day practice through which the encounter-confrontation between researchers and politicians takes place. "Attivismo politico e ricerca scientifica" (Political Activism and Scientific Research) is the title of an article in Topics which examines the way in which political pressures and the need to produce "scoops" often lead to "bad science", the social repercussions of which are anything but negligible.

The problem of the relationship between science and money is one of the issues covered in an article written by Matteo Bartocci for the online magazine "ReS" using the "metalogue" technique dear to Gregory Bateson, i.e. a dialogue on a given subject, in this case carried on with his daughter. The post in Topics entitled "Raccontare la scienza: Bateson" (Recounting Science: Bateson) opens with a mention of this article and goes on to observe how scientists' evaluations of their own work inevitably lead to a discussion of responsibility and the capacity to predict (speaking as an epistemologist, Bateson bases his studies on the perspective that scientists must adopt). Predictable, unpredictable and improbable are therefore the key terms in this post: "innovation is the realisation of the improbable" is a phrase that the Bassetti Foundation has always used in connection with its activity.

A paradigmatic case of innovation, economics, risk and responsibility is examined in the book "Il primo frutto", reviewed in Topics by Margherita Fronte in the post entitled "Contesa biotech: i semi della discordia" (The Biotech Dispute: the seeds of discord). The book is about the Flavr Savr tomato, the first transgenic tomato to be sold commercially. The affair will already be familiar to those following the debate on biotechnology, but the fact that the person telling the story is a researcher who actually took part in the project, Belinda Martineau, gives us an insider's perspective on events.

Other contributions to the site over the last few months have focused on the questions revolving around the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In addition to the above-mentioned review, we also find a piece in the Topics section on the Study Days of the Papal Council for Peace and Justice (the post is called "Chiesa Cattolica e Scienza: libertà di ricerca e responsabilità" - The Catholic Church and Science: freedom of research and responsibility), during which the Vatican's position on GMOs was illustrated. The post is linked to Bertolini's Blog, in which the positions of the Nobel prizewinner Carlo Rubbia, Cardinal Ruini and Bishop Fisichella, and of the CIMI (Conference of Italian Religious Institutes), are summarised.

Also on the subject of GMOs is the last article in the Topics for November, called "Organismi Geneticamente Modificati: possibili dinamiche di rischio ed innovazione tra locale e globale" ("Genetically Modified Organisms: possible dynamics of risk and innovation from the local to the global level"), by Daniele Navarra (again in connection with his Blog). Through a brief overview of what are considered to be the "hottest" aspects of the debate for or against the use of GMOs, Navarra's intention is to present us with a view that is able to judge the risks and responsibilities involved in decisions taken at the local level with respect to political, decision-making and economic processes at the global level, and vice versa.

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