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?

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