Thursday, April 3, 2014

Summary: Bucchi & Neresini (2008), "Science and Public Participation"

“Science and Public Participation” begins by defining public participation as “the diversified set of situations and activities, more or less spontaneous, organized and structured, whereby nonexperts become involved, and provide their own input to, agenda setting, decision making, policy forming, and knowledge production processes regarding science” (p. 449).

This chapter seeks to accomplish three things each of which will be the headings for this summary.

Overview of the emergence of the phenomenon and theme of public participation in science
Understanding public participation in science comes with a common view that the public lacks the ability to “understand and appreciate the achievements of science”. This model is referred to as the “deficit model” (p. 450). This model makes three assumptions: understanding science requires understanding science as it’s communicated by experts (scientific literacy), once the public has achieved this understanding they will begin to think favorably of science, and that in order to understand this relationship between the public and science, one only needs to understand the public’s role in this relationship.

The authors push back on this model by questioning the tools used to measure scientific literacy and the relationship between literacy and attitudes towards science. They believe to understand this phenomenon, one must use a more detailed analysis that examines the different kinds of knowledge used by experts and the public and the differences in values, trust, and perceptions held by both groups. A classic example of the differences between expert and lay knowledge can be found in Wynne’s 1986 study on British government experts and sheep farmers after the Chernobyl accident.

The authors then provide more examples of how nonexperts have been observed interacting with and co-producing scientific knowledge through hybrid forums. Some examples include the participation of AIDS patients in clinical trials, the creation of social movements and NGOs, the active participation and utilization of scientific research tools by the court system to address issues surrounding patents and scientific proof, the development and implementation of technologies, and using the Internet to share knowledge between patients and families. See Table 19.1 for more examples.

There have also been formal initiatives made by public institutions and NGOs to promote public participation in science. Some examples include the involvement in controversial science and technology issues like genetically modified foods and ozone depletion and making “citizen participation” a policy provision in research and innovation. Their reasons for promoting public participation is controversial. The sponsoring institutions often cite “enhanced citizenship and democratic participation” as reasons for promotion, while some claim that this promotion is to help prevent public controversies and to restore public trust in science.

Defining a general interpretative framework
The authors begin this section by describing some of the issues related to developing typologies to categorize and understand the similarities and difference between the different modes of public participation in science. They propose an interpretative framework that is “able to account for “spontaneous” participatory forms, i.e., those not deliberately elicited by a sponsor” like public protests, patient-shaped research, and community-based research (p. 461) and “the simultaneous coexistence of different patterns of participation depending on specific conditions and on the issues at stake” (p. 464). This framework adopts one of Callon’s (2001) dimensions—the “intensity” of cooperation among different actors in knowledge production processes and “access points” where nonexperts can intervene (p. 461). The variables are meant to be understood as a continuum. 

The authors note that over time public participation may move along the two dimensions (spontaneity and intensity) and that there is an “open-endedness” emphasized in this model—output of public participation is hard to predict (p. 463). The authors then give suggestions for integrating this interpretative framework including  avoiding certain temptations like using broad labels like “nonexperts” or “lay public”, overemphasizing the most intense forms of participation, and using the different analytical models as a chronological sequence of stages. The authors hope to change the question about public participation in science from “’which model of participation accounts best’ for expert-public interactions to ‘under what conditions do different forms of public participation emerge?’” (p. 464).

Possible driving forces and potential impact on the production of scientific knowledge
In the authors’ concluding remarks, they examine what conditions may have increased the call for public participation including the role of mass media in questioning policy decisions and the neutrality of science, the mobilization of researchers to protest budget cuts and state regulation in certain fields, and disasters like nuclear accidents that result in the expert community participating with the public.

Bucchi and Neresini  also suggest that public participation will not result in the disappearance of experts. The authors include reasons like the lack of public participation in scientific fields like theoretical physics and how policy makers and representatives of the scientific community use the public’s involvement to help prevent uncontrolled mobilization.

1. How does the phenomenon of "citizen scientists" fit into this analysis? In what ways do scientists and the field of science benefit from citizen scientists?
2. What are other ways in which the field of science prevents "nonexperts" from becoming "experts"? (publication process, education requirements?)

About the Authors
Massimiano Bucchi is an Italian sociologist and scholar of the relationships among science, technology, and society. He is an associate professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Trento. Federico Neresini teaches Science, Technology, and Society and Sociology of Innovation at the University of Padua, Italy. 

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