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Science as democracy

How much can, and should, non-scientists shape the research agenda?

Jennifer Rohn 4 May 2008

People power: who decides?

Anyone who has tried to interest non-scientists in science knows all too well the difficulties involved in raising even an iota of curiosity

In a recent interview with Don Hoyt Gorman of Seed magazine, Sheila Jasanoff, professor of Science and Public Policy at Harvard, expressed an uneasiness about the perceived lack of control that ordinary people have over what scientific advances and technologies are pursued.

We should be thoroughly concerned about aspects of our lives that are being planned and designed in invisible places by [scientific] experts who we don't know how to interrogate. We don't have a delegation or representation where these kinds of ideas are being generated and when decisions are being made. We need better democracy in science.

When Gorman queried what form such democracy might take, Jasanoff was clearer on what she didn't want to see than on practical solutions that might improve the current situation. What doesn't really help, she claimed, is the sort of communication that involves scientists telling us about the culture of science – the human, personal story behind the discoveries. Nor would illuminating what actually goes on in laboratories. Instead, people should be asking questions and "reflecting" on how science is, for example, "altering the very meaning of being human", or impinging on humanity's relationship with nature.

The desire to involve everyone in scientific decisions might seem laudable. But in practical terms, what complex, expert-driven human endeavors – economics, say – really are controlled democratically? And even if you wanted to, anyone who has tried to interest non-scientists in science knows all too well the supreme difficulties involved in raising an iota of even polite curiosity. In parallel, science coverage is hemorrhaging away from our television and print media, presumably because focus groups are saying that they don't want to know. Meanwhile, scientists quietly get on with the job of plying their trade, secure in the knowledge that most people don't care enough to contribute even if they knew where to lodge that input in the first place.

More importantly, I am not in favor of simply writing off scientists telling their stories because it is not perceived as being as helpful as reflecting and interrogating. Instead, I suggest that without a human interface allowing a gentle bridge into the more complex topics on the other side, most people won't bother to delve any further. On the other hand, if they are enticed in by a good story, be that fictional or factual, they might be inspired to learn more – to ask questions – to reflect on what it all means. So let's not underestimate the power of narrative empathy, nor cut off a fruitful avenue of communication and inspiration, just because it seems indirect or trivial from a certain angle.

Related information

You can read the entire interview here.