I will explore constructions of environmental risks by examining: the representation of risks, publics and science by scientific and policy institutions; how science and society are co-constructed by a variety of actors; and the relationship between actors in terms of power. I use nanotechnology as an example of a new technology, through which I address public engagement and participation.
I question the proposed1 disanalogy between GM and nanotechnology regarding political and ethical questions, because, even though the specificities of nanotechnology shape our interaction with it, these technologies converge as bionanotechnology: ‘considering genetic modification and nanoscale technologies as separate spheres of science allows the authors to dismiss self-replication as an irrelevant concern’2. It may seem wise for science, industry and government to learn from the public backlash regarding GM so as to develop profitable technologies, yet merely ensuring public acceptance of technologies does not allow an examination of the underlying values of technological trajectories. It may be easier to sneak nanotechnology into the public domain, meaning the task of finding democratic methods of engagement is even more important. Public engagement3 is essential to establish a just society (Wilsdon, Wynne, and Stilgoe 2005). However, I am suspicious of many proposals and interpretations of engagement. I examine what genuine public engagement could be and agree with Demos4 that if it is used rhetorically to head-off controversy and assess technological impacts it will fail.
5 Conclusions: From Science and Technology Policy Studies to the Politics of Science and Technology85
5.1 Social and Environmental Movements
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other movements have been largely ignored by the upstream engagement discourse. Demos note: ‘NGOs face constraints in their ability to influence or transmit the full range of concerns of the wider population in relation to the wider population’ (Kearnes, Macnaghten, and Wilsdon 2006, p.22), partly due to the dominant risk discourse. Jamison (1996, p.225) confirms why this is the case: academic discussions of risk assume knowlegde is the realm of experts, therefore that movements cannot produce important knowledge. Yet, the risk discourse emerged as a response to movements: they repoliticised science86. Jamison and Eyerman87 suggest environmental movements in the 1970s generated three levels of new knowledge interests: an ecological worldview, alternative criteria for technology development and more democratic, radical, participatory knowledge production. Since the 1980s, there has been a process of incorporation and marginalisation by more powerful actors: moderate demands were accepted and institutionalised, whereas radical demands were banished from the political agenda88. Cozzens and Woodhouse (1995, p.547) pay due respect to movements when they acknowledge publics take definitions into their own hands when enough is at stake; they revalue forms of knowledge that professional science has excluded. Upstream Engagement does not enable publics to choose which technologies are developed, because intellectual property rules ensure business knowledge remains inaccessible: it treats a symptom rather than a disease89.
New movements are emerging that are addressing technology and engagement. Corporate Watch90 examine the Public Relations Industry91:
PR campaigns reinforce corporate power and work against democracy. Through
deception and deceit the public relations industry reduces society’s capacity
to respond effectively to key social, environmental and political challenges.
This new project aims to deepen understanding of this little known industry,
how it operates, and how to combat it’.
They criticise the current voluntary corporate regulation that the UK government is pushing 92. It is irresponsible to assume corporations will regulate themselves for public good; we have to ask why there are not strict regulations in place. Corporate Watch conducted an interview with Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, where he spoke about risks:
Well, we can begin by talking about direct risks. These are new substances
which we know very little about, but already almost every single study into
the toxicity of nano-particles has found that they tend to be more toxic,
and differently so, than their normal-sized equivalents. More importantly,
they’re able to go places that particles couldn’t do previously. Because of
their size they can get into the lungs without being challenged by white
blood cells, they can get across the blood-brain barrier, and they seem to
be able to get into a pregnant woman’s placenta. Nano-particles deposited
in the nose go straight to the brain. So we’re dealing with highly reactive
particles that we don’t really understand, going to places in the body where
particles have never been able to go before. These are very straightforward
The ETC Group93 propose three approaches to nanotechnology governance: technooptimism (technology is good, we just need to be responsible); techno-realism, such as upstream engagement (technology is neutral, we just need more opinions); and technoscepticism (technology is political, we need a society where everyone has a genuine say)94. They characterise upstream engagement as pluralist: there are many applications of and opinions on nanotechnology, we should gather opinions and promote green nanotechnologies, such as solar energies. It does not allow for a rejection of nanotechnology and relies on ‘social scientists to elicit, measure and interpret public views and facilitate dialgoues’ (Etc Group 2005, p.8). Further problems with engagement: the more upstream, the less engaged publics are, because they then have to rely on expert knowledge; consumers in the Global North will be the chosen publics, rather than marginalised peoples; the government is onside because they want to manage public opinion; it does not address systematic issue, such as who owns and controls technology95. I am with The Etc Group in the techno-sceptic category, because I think technology is bound up with power and ideologies. However, I do not think strong application of the precautionary principle is enough, because nanotechnology is simply another industrial strategy reinforcing the injustices of capitalism96. Another problem with engagement is that it does not take into account the regular, off-the-record meetings taking place, which are not accessible to the public97. There are many initiatives taking off in the form of public engagement98, industry is pushing green nanotechnology99 and dissenters are being silenced in one form or another.
5.2 Evaluating Engagement: Trust in Power?
Throughout this essay, I have had Lukes’100 analysis of power in mind: power is at its most effective when least observable. The possibility of power working to secure consent to prevent conflict is often excluded from discussions of engagement101. He identifies three views of power: one-dimensional power is over behaviour where there are observable conflicts102; two-dimensional power criticises this behavioural focus and examines how decisions can be prevented from being taken103; three-dimensional power does not assume that actual conflict is necessary to power, but power is most effective when conflicts do not arrise at all: ‘to assume that the absense of grievances equals genuine consensus is simply to rule out the possibility of false or manipulated consensus by definitional fiat’104 (Lukes 2005, p.28). This is the ‘securing of compliance to domination’ (Lukes 2005, p.109), however power does not have to be deliberate manipulation. Lukes notes ‘internalised illusions are highly compatible with a highly rational and clear-eyed approach to living with them’ (Lukes 2005, p.150). This sounds similar to early paradigms of risk: publics have to rationalise their trust in institutions, because at present there are no alternatives. The
current paradigm is one of facilitating trust rather than understanding, which is just as
problematic: another deficit model.
Through personal communications105, I have come to the following conclusions. Upstream engagement is framed to manufacture consent; it does not change the way we do science, because it does not advocate that science should be led by the people; it does not realise there are wider issues, meaning people do not necesarilly want to talk about things like nanotechnology, as they have more immediate problems; it is simplistic and pluralistic (i.e. techno-realist), thereby ignoring Luke’s three-dimensional power and assuming a techno-capitalist reality. More time, resources and structural changes are needed to ensure there is a possibility of a reflective view; engagement is not a project for people to collectively produce knowledge. I conclude that upstream engagement is a way of asking how participation can become institutionalised without the need for protest driven by initial exclusion106. The crucial questions are: Is democratisation most genuine when it arrises organically from grassroots collective action, or when it is enforced from above? How can
society be organised to enable genuine participation?.
Martin (1994) asks how anarchist principles107 can contribute to a solution to complex scientific policy issues and suggests the word and practice policy should be taken over by the people affected by it. He suggests science is one of the social institutions most resistant to popular participation and control and offers practical solutions for science policy to become anti-capitalist, rather than the rhetoric of government and think tanks: funding decisions should be made by communities; policy juries should make decisions (as opposed to focus groups for the sake of research); community involvement should be promoted through community groups, rather than at the level of scientific research institutions; research should be more participatory and self-management of a variety of strategies should be promoted. These are challenges to institutional structures. Martin thinks ‘Feyerabend’s approach is what many scientists think is or should be going on anyway’, but unfortunately it is not. Feyerabend108 identified two ways of collectively deciding an issue: guided exchange and open exchange109. In the former, most or all participants (or a powerful minority) adopt a well specified tradition and only accept responses corresponding to its standards, such that any participants who are not at first of that tradition become assimilated: the exchange begins when all are of the same tradition. In the latter, the tradition is unspecified and develops as the participants get immersed into each others’ ways of thinking: they become different people participating in a new tradition. Guided exchange only offers respect within the framework of a rational debate. Feyerabend suggests a free society cannot be imposed, but will emerge where people collaborate110. Such a society insists on the separation between science and society, because all traditions should have equal rights and equal access to power111. At present, the scientific-rationalist tradition dominates and ‘an independent science has long ago been replaced by business science which lives off society and strengthens its totalitarian tendencies’ (Feyerabend 1975, p.100). He argues that the research programme science should be subsumed under the research programme free society. Science is part of the basic fabric of democracy and it prevails in its current format because ‘the show has been rigged in its favour’ (Feyerabend 1975, p.102). At present, the way we accept or reject scientific ideas is ‘radically different from democratic decision procedures’ (Feyerabend 1975, p.74), which are necessary for a free society: we can only become mature through active participation112. Participation should be favoured over specialised knowledge, even if it lowers the ‘success rate of decisions’ in terms of the ‘refined charades of the scientists’ (Feyerabend 1975, p.87), since the last word should be with democratic committees, where laypeople have the upper hand. Unanimity in decision-making is often a political decision: dissenters are suppressed or are silent to maintain the trustworthy reputation of science113. Unanimity may indicate a decrease of critical consciousness. Feyerabend suggests the solution is a slow erosion of the authority of the scientific-rationalist worldview through frequent contact to different worldviews in community initiatives.112