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Issue no. 1 - 2004

by Redazione FGB [1], 13 February 2004

For this Diary, we have chosen to focus on the Calls for Comments, which in recent times have become the mainstay of the Bassetti Foundation's web publications.

We shall also take this opportunity to remind readers that all the Calls for Comments are, as always, accessible via the "Topics" link, which leads to the nucleus of the website. They are listed in a separate frame entitled "I Blog e i Call For Comments che orbitano attorno a questa sezione."

The first Call for Comments (CfC) went out in September-October 2003 and was conducted by the sociologist Giuseppe Pellegrini. The Call for Comments formed part of a project entitled "Public Participation and the Governance of Innovation, a Proposal for Institutional Experimentation in the Field of Biotechnology." As we explained in the last Diary, the idea was to compile comments relating to an innovative experience of policy. The Region of Lombardy asked the Bassetti Foundation to verify whether a democratic institution, faced with the need to take decisions that raise complex issues of politics and consent, can improve its decision-making methods. The query relates directly to innovation in the field of biotechnology and involves various categories (business leaders, scientists, policy-makers, consumer associations and environmentalist groups).

Pellegrini kicked off the debate with a piece that posed three questions relating to: the guarantees that the Region of Lombardy can offer in relation to the choices made about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the procedures for involving others in the discussions, and for structuring the intercourse of interested parties.

The contributors to the online debate that followed tried to address these three questions, but made no bones about the difficulties involved in dealing with such a complex subject, which is complicated still further by the prejudices and preconceptions that surround the topic of biotechnology. The issue is already highly sensitive, and is often used as a weapon in arguments among different sections of society. After inappropriate diatribes "for" and "against" GMOs had been dispatched with, the debate proper proceeded with not only Pellegrini but also the contributors themselves further elucidating and scrupulously defining the terms of discussion to prevent the theme of GMO from encroaching into the broader and more complicated question of biotechnology. An effort was also made to trace the distinction (if one really exists) between stakeholders and the general public.

One of the key points to emerge was the need to bring precision to the definition of the possible "actors" in a democratic context. "It would be a good idea first to identify the core interests of the participants in the debate (…) An Assobiotech representative is obviously going to represent the interests of biotechnology companies, but there are also other interests that are not always so evident." (Marlene Di Costanzo).

On the other hand, there was considerable consensus on the fact that powerful economic, political and even cultural pressures exist. Efforts to ensure disclosure and involvement for the purpose of building a democratic decision-making process are often blighted by manipulation of the conduct of the debate or by the factionalism of the contributions. This can undermine confidence not only in the possibility of involving the general public but also of keeping the public adequately informed. In any case, the need to provide information before inviting participation was one of the most commonly recurring themes in the CfCs. Many contributors expressed the opinion that correct and widely available information should take precedence over the encouragement of broad-based involvement. Nor did it escape the notice of the more skeptical contributors that opportunities for manipulation are embedded in the most common channels of communication. "Ordinary people will never be sufficiently well informed, also because even the experts from various fields do not appear to be so. Also, how is it possible to ignore the manipulative aspect of information? Or the impulsive reactions that are not guided by rational thought?" (Ricky Spelta).

Margherita Fronte made the following observation: "Studies of the social acceptability of GMOs show us that the public is not demanding zero risk (see in particular the PABE study, which has been discussed in this website). The public does, however, want above-board handling of the issue. In other words, the public is not demanding assurances of the safety of GMOs, but, rather, assurances that the democratic process is being respected."

In many cases, processes of democratic decision-making that involve discussions, dialogue and the exchange of views among different parties operating in a single assembly, have failed to exercise any great influence on the decision-makers, but have succeeded in introducing flexibility into the principle of democratic representation.

As the CfC neared its conclusion, Pellegrini voiced an optimistic opinion: "I believe that, aside from the risks relating to the information campaign that have been mentioned, we can highlight the effort that has been made to create spaces for debate and knowledge of the local territory that make participation possible, and can help citizens deepen their understanding."

Another point worth noting was stated (rather than debated) by Carlo Crocella, who stressed the need to develop a means of "regulating and guaranteeing the simultaneous existence of divergent ethical modes. We should no longer be thinking in terms of a set of rules and precepts that will always lead to the right choice. The idea, rather, should be to create a public space for ethics, that will vary according to circumstance and in which different moral and technical arguments may be compared."

In addition to the contributors already mentioned, the Calls for Comments saw the participation of: Mauro Belcastro, Vittorio Bertolini, Carla Corazza, Saro Cola, Enrico (no surname given), Vincenzo Lungagnani, Leone Montagnini, Daniele Navarra, Fabio Niespolo, Paola Parmendola, Eleonora Sirsi, Alphonse Vajo and Elisabetta Volli.

The second Call for Comments, which took place between October and December was conducted by Massimiano Bucchi, a sociologist, and dealt with issues raised by fellow sociologist Bruno Latour. As we said in the previous Diary, this Call for Comments, entitled "No Innovation without Representation (A Parliament of Things for the new Technical Democracies)", served the purpose of introducing, adding to and developing the arguments that Latour put forward in his essay, "What rules of method for the new socio-scientific experiments?" which he discussed in Milan on 17 November by invitation of the Bassetti Foundation and the Research Doctorate School of the Politecnico di Milano. The Topics section of the website links both to the CfC and the papers relating to this event.

The participants in the CfC, whose submissions were made in both Italian and English, were: Vittorio Bertolini, Marcello Cini, Nicola Colotti, Barbara Conrad, Bruna De Marchi, Marlene Di Costanzo, Paolo Landoni, Fabian Muniesa, Andrea Pozzali, Sergio Roic and Alberto Schena.

The discussion point that emerged as central referred to Latour's hypothesis on the need to form Hybrid Tribunes or Parliaments of Things in which decisions that involve science and politics are made with reference to new political arrangements, new forms of representation and delegation.

Pozzali, however, made the point: "There is no doubt that nowadays science and technology interest everyone and concern everyone and that decisions concerning science and technology are increasingly entering into political agendas".

Latour spoke of collective experiments that are now being conducted outside laboratories on a scale of one-to-one and in real time. These experiments concern human society and nature, neither of which are allowed to play as great a part as they should in the making of decisions.

Muniesa, who worked for years with the "Center for the Sociology of Innovation" (CSI) in Paris, clarified this point immediately: "Many empirical investigations that have been recently conducted at the CSI are indeed inquiries into real scale collective experiments. I am thinking, among others, of Jim Dratwa's thesis on the 'precautionary principle': he traced the elaboration of EU official statements on the precautionary principle as a collective experiment on the construction of Europe. But there are many others: Emmanuel Didier's history of statistical sampling (the extension of the statistical laboratory to all "society"), Emilie Gomart's study on experiments with methadone, Vincent Lépinay's thesis on the circulation of financial formulas in markets, Dominique Linhardt's work on the 1970s' leftwing terrorism as a collective experiment on the strength of the State, Yannick Barthe's thesis on the politics of nuclear waste, or my own work on electronic trading in financial markets, etc".

Roic sees the dictates of the glocal ideal (decentralisation, networks, equality of opportunity etc.) as providing a possible way of dealing with these issues. He supports the idea that glocal thought can provide an answer to the question of how to transcend modernity and faceless, irresponsible "centralism." At the end of his argument, however, he himself ask the stark question: "how can it be done?"

The online debate pivoted on this question, which led to a series of parallel proposals and observations. Drawing attention to the irreversible nature of the socio-scientific experiments that Latour mentioned, Di Costanzo argued for a more prudent approach and the implementation of (presumed) solutions on a smaller scale. Bertolini voiced fundamental doubts about the value of glocal, and questioned the extent to which the "local" is able to think globally. He added: "The motto of glocal is 'act locally and think globally', but I often get the impression that [activists] want to act globally and think locally, as in the case of wanting to export our mistrust of transgenic produce to sub-Saharan countries."

Pozzali, pointed out that this area, the choices made and roads taken lead to entirely different worlds, and proposed that the process should be slow. The issue requires broad-based investigation and debate so that new systems of rules and procedures as well as new monitoring agencies can be created, without, however, paralyzing scientific and technological activity.

The participants were clearly in agreement as regards their observations of the phenomenon, but identifying the best means of approaching the problem remains a very difficult task.

According to Schena, the question should be subjected to Darwinian principles: "Of course 'natural' evolution takes a very long time, and we all are fascinated by the illusion to be able to direct or to accelerate the 'natural' process".

Landoni, who believes nature and science exist independently of the use that we make of them (a reading that Pozzali contested), argued that "the objective should be to guide science and technology development in more interesting directions not by denying its objectivity and value or, even worse, by trying to convince that science and nature could be shaped on our will: what can be shaped is our world according to the use we make of our knowledge and means".

Colotti remarked that political and economic interests, and the "defensive" ambitions of environmentalists are positions that will always evolve towards a form of ideology. "What is needed, therefore, is a new humanist vigilance over the techno-sciences and business politics in the neo-liberal matrix. Human sciences can and must resume their function of providing room for the elaboration of new conceptual proposals and the affirmation of the new ecological culture."

Yet, once again, the question of how remains.

In line with his vision of glocal thinking, Latour proposed the idea of cosmograna, entailing the distribution of roles, functions and agencies to "humans and non-humans". He then, however, admitted the impossibility of conciliation among men: "Nature unifies in advance and without any discussion or negotiations; cultures divides. 'If only, if only, so the modernist dreams, we could all be children of nature, forget about our cultural, subjective, ideological, religion divisions, we will all be unified again, we would all zoom on the one same solution.' More nature, hence more unity. More cultures, hence more divisions".

Conrad's question was: "Why is there a trickling down of science but not enough, of conscience?" and observed "the more we look at the differences, the more we climb up the "peculiarities' ladder" of each group, the more divergence and hostility we find. Can we stand this hostility in our global village? I don't think so". By way of conclusion, he delivered the following rallying-cry: "As Mr Latour writes at the end of the complete version of this text, Europe, as a huge multicultural experimental field, now growingly united - not forgetting about its obvious growing pains - could be, if it wanted, the start of a new vision for global responsibility". De Marchi, whose contribution directly preceded Conrad's, noted: "The risk governance debate needs to be open to multiple perspectives and acknowledge the presence of conflicting interests".

Finally, Cini posited his own vision of things in contrast to the title, "No Innovation without Representation", and declared: "We cannot understand the world unless we go to the supermarket." He was highlighting what he sees as an essential aspect of the current reality which, as he says, is "based on global capital." He elaborated the idea, as follows: "the fundamental contradiction of a society based on global capital resides in its impulse on the one hand to reduce all goods to an undifferentiated mass, and, on the other, its attempt to use the market to satisfy individual and collective needs, which together constitute the infinite gamut of human experience…Only if we show up this sham for what it is can we turn the rather effective slogan, 'No innovation without representation' into reality".

The two Calls for Comments consist of a wealth of contributions, which often touched upon several themes, and whose authors expressed their personal views. Perforce, this Diary had to simplify the discussions and omit certain aspects, which added much to the quality of the dialogue, but were by their nature incidental to the discussion. We invite contributors who feel that their arguments were not adequately represented to write to us.

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