Engaged Citizens and the Role of Expertise

Science and technology governance that follows “democratic” principles during the policy-making process should include potentially-affected citizens. The majority of Science and Technology Studies (STS) research advocates greater public participation in science and technology governance in an attempt to make the relationship of science with society democratic, open, and responsive.

While past views within the scientific community held its members as experts that informed and advised the public regarding the path of science and technology development, STS literature has increasingly emphasized the role of the ordinary citizen (Durant 1999; Callon 1999; Shelia Jasanoff 2003). Not only can public input make science and technology governance more democratic, it can actually contribute localized expertise to the governance process, which results in a more informed outcome. Numerous studies have shown how citizen groups can bring relevant knowledge and expertise to such processes when the value of this expertise, though perhaps not gained through formal training, is adequately recognized (Brown 1992; Epstein 1996; Kerr, Cunningham-Burley, and Amos 1998; Irwin 1995; Wynne 1989). Some research goes so far to charge top-down science governance as the cause of eroding public trust in the potential of science and technology (Beck 1992).

Critiques of the expert communication model, whereby formally-trained science and technology professionals advise policy makers and the general public in a linear fashion, all call for more citizen input but vary in the nature of this input. Evans and Collins summarize the critiques into “conservative” and “radical,” where conservative critiques call for greater public input into how science is applied, while radical critiques call for a reordering of the process to equate so-called “lay expertise” with scientific expertise in the process of science and technology governance (2008). Though the radical versus conservative distinction is important in assessing the dominance of scientific experts, the main goal of the overall effort should be to recognize valid contributions of citizens, whether limited and experiential or more broadly-based in genuine expertise.

Incorporating this citizen knowledge, however, can be a difficult task requiring localized solutions that draw upon concepts and experiments from science and technology governance, as well as science communication. Callon (1999) categorizes three potential communication models: linear public education, interactive public debate, and democratic co-production. Funtowicz and Ravetz argue for a “post-normal science” that extends participation in science governance beyond traditional groups based on the existence of “uncertainties” and “stakes” in the outcomes of the decision-making process; greater levels of uncertainty corresponding to complex real-world situations reduce the scientific community’s ability to effectively implement solutions (1993).

While the role of citizens should not be undervalued, the role of science and technology experts should also not be diminished to the point of inferiority (Beck 1992; Giddens 1990; Irwin 1995). This is central to the legitimacy of the scientific community and the general public, who are both key participants in any sociotechnical network. The motivation to balance these interests spurred efforts of science communication such as consensus conferences, science shops, and robust internet- and print-based science reporting. Jasanoff and others note how balancing these interests to satisfy the calls for public inclusion is complicated by growing mistrust on the part of the general public towards corporations, government, and public institutions over the course of several decades (2004). Viewed as an entity, “big science” has contributed to the problems associated with progress, environmental degradation, loss of personal freedom, and unequal income distribution. The role of the engaged citizen in many forms of governance is being reassessed, as scholars inside and outside of STS examine the potential contributions and their implications for governance in pervading political environments.



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