Little Country, Big Talk: Public engagement in contested science and technology

31 Aug 2017

Image: Ollyy/Shutterstock

In an extract from ‘Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland’, Dr Pádraig Murphy brings to light the various ways in which the conversations around significant scientific issues are shaped and influenced.

Brian Wynne, a British scholar in science studies, paused near the end of his presentation to the annual Celsius symposium at Dublin City University (DCU) in 2011. “Pádraig told me not to talk about sheep,” he said. This brought some confused titters from an Irish audience largely unfamiliar with science studies. “But I suppose I had better clarify.”

Up to this point, what Wynne had been talking about was talk itself; complex, contested technological developments require careful policy consideration when facilitating different forms of expertise – and none – from various participants in discussions, consultations and deliberations; thus, various kinds of talk. Among the emerging technologies around which this type of inclusive process might take place are genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology products and geo-engineering. Some academics in science studies – the study of science from ‘the social side’ – call these combinations of societal impact of technology and public response sociotechnical issues.

Sheep-farming after Chernobyl

The sheep to which Wynne was referring were characters in his seminal work on lay knowledge around the nuclear incident at Chernobyl, Sheep-farming after Chernobyl: A case study in communicating scientific information.

His paper mapped out the disputes over a ban on the movement of sheep flocks in Britain after the explosion. For months, fears persisted about contamination spread among livestock. Pockets of caesium were still detectable around the fields of Cumbria. The UK government maintained a ban here while it was lifted in other parts of Britain. Cumbrian sheep farmers faced ruin, their sheep starvation. An entire industry was in the balance, while government scientists appeared dismissive of local farmers’ claims, basing their positions on models of caesium prediction and control. There was added mistrust based on long-suspected radiation leakage from the local Sellafield power plant. Lay knowledge and lay expertise were central to the ethnographic study Wynne conducted.

The sheep are almost a cliché now in the study of public engagement with science and technology, having become synonymous with this exploration of multiple perspectives on a contested scientific or technological issue. But Wynne wanted to clear up the misrepresentation of his concept. He did not intend in these early research papers to fetishise non-experts as though their opinions had equal value to technical expertise on a particular technical point. The point was, as he explained at our symposium, that diverse types of expertise could be explored and facilitated on a complex sociotechnical issue.

Farmers knew their land, their livestock and grazing patterns, and their industry; radiation experts knew their caesium. (Up to a point. They made erroneous readings, as it turned out, which increased the farmers’ mistrust.)

The varying types of expertise that farmers, radiation specialists, healthcare workers and civil servants all possess added up to an ‘assemblage’ of issues and practices that goes beyond the technical human risk of, in this case, radiation exposure.

‘Where the mantra becomes “science is fact, everything else is opinion”, the exclusion zones are quickly set up. Polarisation sets in, and divides, as quickly in the realm of science as it does in politics’

Wind farm in Ireland. Image: morrison/Shutterstock

Wind farm in Ireland. Image: morrison/Shutterstock

Ireland has faced many such disputes that are local in character. Wind power, natural resource mining, pylons, incinerators and the master-narrative of resistance of them all: water. But there is more than geographic locality at issue here, which often draws accusations of NIMBYism. Focusing on four such cases – nuclear energy, human embryonic stem cell research, genetically modified food and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – they are quite separate sociotechnical issues but they share certain aspects that demonstrate modes of dealing with controversial technological issues among strategic and resistant interests alike that heavily politicise these issues. They each involve strategic control over the public discourse. They create a public alongside other public voices.

A gap can then be identified in Irish society between how science and technology on the one hand, and public unease and distrust on the other, are framed, constructed and articulated. These have become two separate worlds: on the one side, strategic innovation; on the other, community and public identity.

‘Community’ here is defined to include communities of resistance to technologies, both broadly as well as in local settings, as well as online communities, on which so much protest now depends. The term ‘the public’ is eschewed for the more distinguishable and discrete ‘publics’. In short, the mobilisations reported here are of different publics than those summoned for opinion towards science and technology in national surveys.

Changing perspectives on publics

Ireland has a rich history of participation in science globally and in communicating that science in public lectures. For example, Erwin Schrödinger delivered his highly influential series of talks, ‘What Is Life?’, to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in 1943.

Within the models of science communication, these events can now be seen as ‘dissemination’. The move beyond dissemination to include dialogic science and conversational, citizen-oriented or hacker modes is reflected throughout the book, Little Country, Big Talk. We can see the emergence of a menu of options, but the goals of government research and innovation policy often appear to privilege disseminating and public-informing over any support for dialogue or public involvement.

For science and technology studies (STS) scholars influential in the policy sphere, the uncertainty of global challenges such as climate change, ageing societies, resource security and others, is an opportunity to align political and technological solutions. This seems distant from what we currently have on the world stage, however. To judge the political mood across the West, one would have to fear for any possibility of deeper engagement processes around the construction and products of science. The rejection of experts is a theme that has gained traction and vehemence in global affairs since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK. However, this is very different from the battle with a scientific elitism that may be a requirement for disciplinary advance, but obstructs transdisciplinary solving of, or dealing with, the uncertainties of sociotechnical issues.

Where the mantra becomes ‘science is fact, everything else is opinion’, the exclusion zones are quickly set up. Polarisation sets in, and divides, as quickly in the realm of science as it does in politics. While there is an STS notion to consider science and politics as two sides of the same coin and concentrate on matters of concern rather than focus on matters of fact in sociotechnical issues, research policy in Europe has been influenced by the distinction made between Mode 1 and Mode 2 forms of knowledge production outlined in 2001’s Rethinking science: Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty.

In summary, Mode 1 science is conceived as the traditional, linear process by which a single scientist working alone in the lab develops an idea or invention that eventually ‘translates’ out into society as an innovation. Mode-2 science, by contrast, is contextualised within diffuse, multiple accountabilities and carried out by multiple teams of different disciplines, generating the ‘social robustness’ that society demands. There are feedback loops and iterations between the scientific expert team or network and society.

There is a conceptual aspiration by Mode 2 proponents that the state might have a central role here but this idealistic notion of a state with science at its democratic head has been under threat, if it ever existed. The proposed social contract for science tends to ignore the dominance of markets. Jerome Ravetz, in his wonderful No-Nonsense Guide to Science, clearly articulates that interest groups – including large and small industry and spokespersons and lobby groups for ‘Big Science’, such as genomics, AI, neuroscience and robotics – need to be included in these fuzzy assemblages of Mode 2 science. The science-society nexus now includes all of the provinces of socially derived knowledge creation – the venture capitalists, marketeers, ‘imagineers’, research officers, patent operatives, humanities researchers and NGOs. We are in a different country, one in which ‘migrants’ of different disciplines and professions have added to science’s diversity.

Communicating this type of Mode 2 science –essentially, communicating uncertainty – is a supreme challenge, and one that assumes we already know the difficulties in communicating Mode 1. It appears we did not have time to get Mode 1 right before we knew there was a Mode 2, or ‘post-normal science’ as Ravetz calls it.

‘We are in a different country, one in which ‘migrants’ of different disciplines and professions have added to science’s diversity’

In the UK, the 1985 Bodmer Report on public understanding of science was followed some years later by the now seminal policy instrument for science communication: the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Society. This set the parameters for a new type of engagement that fits the understanding of science-society relations as Mode 2. Since then, UK scholarship has developed an almost bewildering set of models and activities on science communication and public engagement, matched across Europe.

This all possibly culminates in the typology of models and activities identified in the European Commission project Engage2020. However, all these models face the pitfalls of the ‘politics of talk’, where talk is everything but nothing is done. While the European Commission attempts to embed responsible research and innovation (RRI) and open science across its research programmes, some critique Mode 2 and ‘the engagement industry’.

The development of proposed international trade agreements, particularly between the US and EU, would seem to be a serious barrier to RRI. In 2002, Harry Collins and Robert Evans produced a more measured analysis of ways forward, suggesting an ‘age of expertise’ beyond the previous ages of elitism of science and excess dialogue, which is goal-oriented, and considering lay expertise and how it informs and creates policy.

Science Foundation Ireland’s plans for a ‘challenge-based’ approach to research may be entering this space of RRI engagement. Taking its lead from the ‘societal challenges’ of the European Commission, the UN’s global goals for sustainable development, and the National Science Foundation’s ‘grand challenges’ – such as climate change, ageing societies, transport, water and food security and development, migration – this SFI policy is tied to real threats to human existence and to the planet.

There is still a reliance on Eurobarometer and other survey data for ‘opinion’ rather than genuine engagement processes, and SFI uses positive results in such surveys as support for current policy. However, we need to consider the ‘don’t know’ responses to such surveys, notably high in Ireland. Also, beyond survey results is the issue of how the questions for different publics are framed.

Taking account of shifting assemblages

There are some shared patterns and many contrasts across the sociotechnical areas of nuclear energy, genetically modified (GM) technologies, human embryo stem cell (HESC) and fracking. Even where new techniques of engagement are employed (citizen juries, government-commissioned deliberation processes, websites, social media), there is a degree of control that strategic science policy has the means to release – but is it in their best interest to do so? Is Steve Fuller’s anti-engagement cynicism justified, in that the answer is already decided?

For nuclear energy, public mobilisation and strategic government policy are currently aligned, public and strategic resistance, both ‘fighting the common enemy’, in the case of British nuclear policy.

In the biopolitical realms, Irish science and advocacy have formed new allegiances and bioscientists now require these public, patient and practitioner networks in order to carry out research and shape not only clinical care but also policy. Advocacy groups for change that support science but whose goal is to influence it include Fighting Blindness. But these consortia of different stakeholders are unlikely to be part of contentious science. Likewise, the 2016 report Teagasc Technology Foresight 2035: Technology transforming Irish agri-food and bioeconomy, while dealing with consumers, at least presents a case for interdisciplinary approaches to food research and production.

In seeing these technoscientific assemblages emerge, in identifying the patterns of resistance and acceptance, one can imagine that a fracking company, for example, could and should be under science policy watch with various stakeholders interacting.

Patient support groups help to shape science by joining research consortia and are an example of ‘end users’ (if that is the appropriate phrase) not only influencing the communication of health science, but also influencing the research and its eventual products.

‘For the foreseeable future, innovation culture in Ireland will be dominated by jobs, competitiveness and future skills’

The interest among science communication practitioners in hackerspaces and makerspaces also creates potential for a dialogic, involving science. However, there is a risk here also of a phenomenon that appears oxymoronic: a controlled, strategic hacking.

Hackerspaces and ‘DIY science’ manifest themselves as a new phenomenon in which public groups acquire tools of inquiry but without a how-to guide. The perceived freedom of hacking notionally allows any kind of solution to emerge as publics tamper with a problem issue. This works best for information and communication technologies, specifically coding, for which there is a new breed of tech-savvy guerrilla.

Hackerspaces represent a notion of bottom-up engagement but Irish banks, for example, have run hacker events. This means the apparently uncontrolled activity is regarded as safe. While the contentious issues can remain outside strategic control, perhaps there are not yet many publics possessing the tools and methodologies with which to make this seemingly disruptive, rebellious activity into a tactical, practical response.

There are also deep-engagement possibilities in citizen science, where publics aid science-in-the-making, but this will only be a potent process where they have an impact on the science agenda as well as being involved in data collection.

‘Water became solely a taxation issue in Irish political discourse and a focal point for protest. The opportunity was missed to look more broadly at water in sustainable, technological development’

Protesters march in Dublin city centre in response to household water charges, November 2014. Image: Simon McLoughlin/Shutterstock

Protesters march in Dublin city centre in response to household water charges, November 2014. Image: Simon McLoughlin/Shutterstock

Strategic research and innovation in Ireland is still in fire-fighting mode around wind farms, pylons for high-voltage power lines, fracking, GM crops and HESC. But the communities of concern that have evolved still do not constitute an assembly of issues, of matters of concern. Where there has been widespread disruption and outright hostility is in protests over water charges, and the Celsius group at DCU is looking into the perspectives of that movement with colleagues at Arizona State University, who are undertaking a global study.

There are contrasts, of course, between how the citizens of a desert city would respond to water conservation measures and those of a small Atlantic island would perceive them. Without going into much analytical detail, we can see that where water is scarcer, the environmental and technological rationale for developing a system as a commodity and charging for it gets more traction than in a rainy European country. Water became solely a taxation issue in Irish political discourse and a focal point for protest. The opportunity was missed to look more broadly at water in sustainable, technological development.

A critical external influence on how these assemblages may be created in Ireland is local-national-global mobilisation, tied to strategic areas of concern in the current and likely future structure of European research funding. The science-with-and-for-society calls that traverse all of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research funding and what the EC currently calls ‘open science’ seek to embed RRI engagement processes that impact on policy as much as on how science progresses. (Or, perhaps, in some cases, if technoscience takes RRI seriously, science stalls.)

This European development has been an obvious influence on SFI and the Irish Research Council, who have begun to model their calls in this way for Irish scientists. This gives some cause for optimism about a little country’s turn to science engagement.

‘20 years after a strategic turn to science, Irish science policy has avoided substantive protest and resistance but also meaningful engagement’

For the foreseeable future, innovation culture in Ireland will be dominated by jobs, competitiveness and future skills. To resolve the tension between STEM policy and education and the movement to RRI and beyond, strategic engagement needs to take on board public protest. RRI is the new buzzword, but sociologists like Wynne already saw this as a natural process of reflexive modernisation – science and society in conflict, stopping, reflecting, carrying on. Irish farming communities interacting with expert-driven opinion of regulatory agencies, local authorities and private companies – where the latter groups possess the core sets of technical expertise that responses to wind farms, pylons or fracking demand – will not feel this reflexive modernisation.

20 years after a strategic turn to science, Irish science policy has avoided substantive protest and resistance but also meaningful engagement. There have been two separate discourses: one of changing hearts and minds through STEM and science communication; another which has been nothing less than a political battleground for natural resources, landscapes, identities and connections with a transcendent ‘nature’ (in the cases of GM, fracking and, to a certain extent, nuclear energy), and with ‘the nature of personhood’ (in the case of HESC). The first has remained within the domains of dissemination, awareness, promotion and marketing. The second type of discourse is highly political.

For this political type of scientific discourse, as with all political disputes, there may never be an agreed way forward. It is unlikely that there can be consensus on policy for wind farm locations, nuclear energy, hydraulic fracturing or reproductive technologies. But there will be compromises, full stops, retreats and offshoot movements that no one expected. The strategists of Irish technoscience could learn from grazing sheep and their significance in complex ecosystems of science, technology and publics.

By Dr Pádraig Murphy

Dr Pádraig Murphy lectures at DCU and is chair of the master’s in science communication at the university.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland, edited by Murphy, Brian Trench and Dr Declan Fahy. The book was published in April 2017 by Pantaneto Press and the Celsius research group at DCU and is available at Hodges Figgis, Books Upstairs and online.