Thursday, 29 March 2012

Hitting the Policy Wall

A critical question on issues around democratising science governance is whether research into public participation actually translates into changes in policy frameworks and decision making processes. Does such research make a difference?

The answer to the question, at least in New Zealand, seems to be a disappointing no. In a study co-authored by one us (with Jeanette Wright) in the PUS (available online), we found that significant points made by the public on the use of genetic modification were often ignored. We highlighted in particular the response by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), the key decision making body on genetic modification in New Zealand, to public participation in a particular case. As pointed out in the article, the study found that ERMA “systematically marginalized concerns raised by the public about risk management, ethics, and ecological, economic, and cultural issues in order to give primacy to a positivist, technological worldview.”

That such a response by government bodies is systematic and not ad hoc is evident in an article published in 2011 in Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal by Linda Macdonald, Richard Varey and James Barker. The authors undertook a review of all research emerging from a “five-year government-funded study of the cultural and social aspects of sustainable biotechnology in New Zealand.” They found that government policies on biotechnology continued to focus on “economic progress” with an emphasis on being competitive, while viewing public dialogue as “diversionary and unsubstantiated.” Their analysis concludes that “the programme was ineffective in influencing government policy and fell victim to the very problem of science governance that its purpose was designed to address.”

While research on GM and biotechnology continues at a breakneck speed, policy structures are being left far behind. Even in the UK, which has seen huge public concerns being expressed about the science and politics of GM, new initiatives in the field are flourishing. The most recent one is the report on successful trials of genetically-modified wheat that can repel insects without killing them.

In China, scientists have recently claimed to have successfully inserted human genes into cows (see report) and genetically modified rice to produce human blood (see report). Is public input into the controversial aspects of this science being adequately heard by policy makers worldwide?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ideology, Advocacy, and the Capacity to Change

In an earlier blog on “Sceptics or ideologues”, we had commented on the findings of research (available online) by Kersty Hobson of the University of Oxford and Simon Niemeyer of the Australian National University that showed that deeply held beliefs denying anthropogenic climate change are hard to move.

In contrast, however, there are other studies that demonstrate the efficacy of dialogue and deliberation in allowing people to shift their positions. One such study (available online) by Theodore Zorn, Juliet Roper, C. Kay Weaver, and Colleen Rigby of the University of Waikato found that “as a result of participation in dialogue, laypeople’s attitudes toward scientists were more positive and scientists’ and laypeople’s attitudes toward HBT [Human Biotechnology] tended to converge.”

Clearly there are limitations to processes such as deliberation and dialogue in as much as they do not automatically address issues of power, conflict, and capital. Questions around the inclusiveness of such processes, of who gets to determine who is included or excluded in such processes, and with what effect, all need to be addressed. In a lecture at the University of Waikato on “Care, Concern and Advocacy: Is There a Place for Epistemic Responsibility?”, Professor Lorraine Code of York University explored the importance of advocacy as a way of including often marginalised voices, while acknowledging the potential for ‘advocates’ to speak past each other.

Notwithstanding the potential of powerful economic/corporate and political interests to subvert democratic processes, a key issue in these debates seems to be how strongly vested – ideologically and emotionally – individuals and groups may be in particular positions. Another fundamental issue flagged by the seeming inability for reflexivity by people/publics on contentious issues is the paucity of time. Conversations, deliberations and dialogues need time to come to fruition (as evident in the practices of many non-Western societies) but rarely do policy frameworks allow for this.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Synthetic Biology

At first glance, the term sounds like an oxymoron. Synthetic implies something not quite natural while biology, as the science of living things, lies at the core of nature. Yet synthetic biology has joined the list of new and emerging technologies that is engaging scientists and social scientists alike. As with many other new technologies, the public has little understanding of what this radical new field of study is all about.

The current issue of Public Understanding of Science takes a major step in facilitating this understanding. Synthetic biology is quite simply breaking boundaries as it involves creating artificial biological systems but even scientists do not agree on what it specifically entails. In her introductory piece, Nicole Kronberger, cites an expert as saying: “If you ask five people to define synthetic biology, you will get six answers.”

According to Kronberger, the term synthetic biology itself is a hundred years old, having been coined by the French chemist Stéphane Leduc in 1912 but it is very recently that it has started shaping up to be a whole new field of academic study. 

Kronberger’s introduction provides a good overview of the four articles and a commentary on synthetic biology featured in the special issue. One of the key questions, from a public understanding point of view, is how similar and how different is synthetic biology from earlier technologies such as genetic modification. Although the potential for generating debates is high, Helge Torgersen and Jürgen Hampel say in their article that analogies cannot be made between synthetic biology and GM. Among the significant differences between them is the fact that synthetic biology does not involve tangible products such as food. Hence, they argue that synthetic biology is much less likely to be controversial.

Kronberger, however, acknowledges that “the synthetic biology community is aware that its research has the potential to be controversial.

In a recent issue of Nature, published earlier this month, Genya V. Dana, Todd Kuiken, David Rejeski and Allison A. Snow raise questions about the potential risks of synthetic living organisms: “Unlike transgenic crops, synthetic microbes will be altered in more sophisticated and fundamental ways (such as elimination of metabolic pathways), making them potentially more difficult to regulate, manage and monitor. They might also have environmental impacts that are difficult to predict.” In their commentary, the authors suggest four areas of risk research to deal with this potential threat. These include looking “for changes in a synthetic organism's production of toxic substances or other harmful metabolites;” considering “how such microbes might alter habitats, food webs or biodiversity;” finding the “the rate at which the synthetic organism and its genetic material evolves so as to determine whether the organism could persist, spread or alter its behaviour in natural environments;”  and determining whether such organisms can “pass on properties such as antibiotic resistance, which could pose threats to human health.”

Reflecting on the current research on synthetic biology, Matthias Kaiser raises some fundamental questions on the anxiety over potential value conflicts anticipated in the area of new technologies. In his commentary in the current issue of the Public Understanding of Science, he asks what the purpose of public engagement on new technologies such as synthetic biology is, whose interests are served by such engagements, and whether we need new frameworks to facilitate public engagement.

There’s surely more to come on this topic ….

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Clearing the air?

Does scientific evidence demonstrating the reality of anthropogenic climate change make a difference to public understandings of the issue?

In a forthcoming PUS article (available online), Kersty Hobson of the University of Oxford and Simon Niemeyer of the Australian National University focus on the effects of information and deliberation on climate change scepticism. Their analysis shows the prevalence of five discourses spanning a range of scepticism about climate change. Crucially, their findings demonstrate that deeply held beliefs against anthropogenic climate change are hard to shake.

The research carried out by the two scholars shows that the use of scenarios and deliberation in the research does allow many sceptics to shift their position to a milder position along the continuum of sceptic beliefs. But those who begin with hardened positions of climate denial not only do not move but instead become “more dogmatic and belligerent, suggesting that public climate change communication strategies or interventions can unintentionally alienate such individuals further.”

Despite the weight of scientific evidence, climate sceptics and deniers are unlikely to go away any time soon. Hobson and Niemeyer’s piece begins with a quote from Richard Black, environment correspondent of the BBC, who said in a 2007 article:  “What sceptics believe is an important question, because their voices are heard in governments, editors’ offices, boardrooms, and – most importantly—the street.” It is important, therefore, that we continue to think about how best to respond to climate scepticism.

One reason why voices of denial continue to be heard above the general acceptance of climate change research is the continued high level funding by industry—and wealthy individuals—for outfits paid to oppose the science. For example, a U.S think tank “backed by fossil fuel interests” has been reported to have funded a group of climate change sceptics in New Zealand (see report).

In contrast to the vocal presence of climate change deniers in the developed world, Bruno Takahashi and Mark Miesner of the State University of New York, in another forthcoming article in PUS (also available online), find that there is a notable absence of sceptical voices in the media coverage of climate change in Peru despite an otherwise heavy reliance on international newswires.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Science Vs Religion

Right-wing U.S politician and Republican presidential aspirant Rick Santorum has sparked another round of media debate on Science Vs Religion with his recent comments on the campaign trail. In one instance, he openly argued against the separation of the Church from the State and, in another, he questioned the science of global warming. For the popular media, this was another opportunity to line up a prize-fight between science and religion.

Politicians, of course, are known to cater to their constituencies. And there are many gullible people who fall for their rhetoric. But is the general public divided along science and religion lines as the popular media often suggests? Or is the divide only between religious fanatics and science absolutists?

In a forthcoming article (now available online) in Public Understanding of Science, Joseph O. Baker of East Tennessee State University reports on a national survey conducted in the U.S which shows that only 17 % of the respondents felt that science and religion are incompatible, with a paltry 6 % saying that they “strongly agreed” with such incompatibility. On the other hand, as many as 69 % of the respondents believed that the two could be compatible.

The study entitled “Public perceptions of incompatibility between “science and religion” begins with a quote from the critical realist Ian Barbour: “Today the popular image of the “warfare between science and religion” is perpetuated by the media, for whom a controversy is more dramatic than the more subtle and discriminating positions between the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism.” Baker’s study supports Barbour’s typology in revealing two distinct groups of people asserting incompatibility between science and religion: “Those privileging science and those privileging religion.” Significantly, the study concludes that competing efforts to wield power—the “struggles for influence, status, and the right to define and perform authoritative societal roles”—is central to the rhetoric of conflict between science and religion.

Clearly, large segments of the population, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere as well, are positioned between what Barbour calls “the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism.” As Baker’s study shows, more empirical studies of public perceptions of science and religion could potentially be a big step towards greater understanding.

Yet, will this focus on science and religion allow us to recognize what Amartya Sen describes in his book Identity and Violence as our “inescapably plural identities” – identities outside of those shaped by faith in a religion or, for that matter, in science?