Paris 2002 - Conclusion
Académie d'Agriculture de France
Special session, Friday October 18th, 2002 :
Reconciling Science and Society in agriculture
Michel Griffon , Head of scientific direction, CIRAD
Thus, there exists a confidence crisis between Society and Science. Perhaps, should we say, between Society and research, for, after all, our practice of research may be the target of criticisms more than science itself. In effect, opinion pools show a large majority of french still praise science, and keep confidence in it. But insofar as researchers are concerned, the present debate is quite justified in the premise of this academy.
The confidence crisis finds roots into thirty year old events. Among these, good example are: the controversy on the rapeseed oil carcinogenic power ; the dangers of nitrates supposed to be present in small quantity within child food; the alleged hazards of certain plastic material used for wrapping. Other cases had even more important effects on opinion: the BSE, mentioned by Guy Paillotin, or the GMO's, at the focus of André Cauderon's contribution. As time passed, fears developed. They originate in the fact that anybody may be exposed at random to a research engendered risk. They result in scepticism with respect to the utility of progress, especially when the latter is proposed by firms, all of them caricatured as being suspect of giving their benefits a higher priority than to consumer's undemonstrated risk. With GMO's, some organisations even made use of violence by destroying experimental fields. The appearance of violence is a sign that the confidence crisis is going to increase.
Now, if a crisis does occur, it should be the outcome of a change in the functioning of institutions the purpose of which is to make links between research and society. In such a situation, we have first to understand what happens, then to put our practices in question, and, finally, to fin a solution for going out of crisis.
1. FIRST OF ALL, UNDERSTANDING
We have to acknowledge the works which, for a few years, have been pursued in INRA by Pierre Benoit Joly and Claire Marris. They are analysing the game which is developing under our eyes, and try to determine it very nature. It involves many stack holders, public research systems, firms, consumer associations, trade unions, government agencies, political organisations, governments, as well as medias, which give account of facts and opinions.
The dynamics of these conflicts is not known, nor their deeper motivations. They generally bring together two legitimacies : On one side research, in its knowledge supplier role, whose activity implies audacity, and taking risks with respect to unexpected outcomes; and, on the other side, risk averse citizens, anxious to secure welfare, and seeking complementary insurances. Such two legitimacies contrast in risk management, as Pierre Henri Gouyon recently remarked in a INRA organised meeting on the history of plant breeding in Montpellier. For that reason, the precautionary principle became a key issue in all scientific activities.
A specific property of conflicts, however, is that each party contradicts the other, without any other purpose than self-justification. As a consequence, no possibility of agreement exists in the heart of a conflict. In that respect, medias too often play only the role of amplifier and of accelerator. Now, they may also make arguments progressing, and bring conflict ahead in the road of solution.
We must admit that, up till now, we did not devote enough resources to analyse and understand these conflicts. We do not know the deep motivations of various stack holders. Now, this become a necessity, because our societies are founded over a dynamic equilibrium which is fully dependant upon technical progress. These conflicts, therefore, impinge upon an essential aspect of Societies' motion. It urgent to embark into the sociological, and, more generally, social sciences researches, which are badly needed to help us understanding the situation.
Understanding, however, is only a first step.
2. QUESTIONING PRACTICES
We – that is, researchers – have to question our research practices as well as our relations to society – especially, our relations with medias. As scientists, we often consider ourselves as the owner of our files, in the sens that, because of our knowledge and expertise, other people should not be really authorized to express valuable opinions in these matters. Implicitely, non scientists are considered as under-informed, subjective, often irrational, or ideologically biased. Such an attitude is justified by the intellectual power provided by the asymetry in knowledge. It engender violence from the part of those who do not masterize this knowledge, but are afraid of possible negative consequences. It is not acceptable. Eventually, facing this violence, researchers are destabilized. They are also destabilized when they suffer mediatic attacks that they object to in the name of scientific rigour. It is therefore impossible to continue this way.
In front of this situation, research institutions often react by designing procedures for making questionning mandatory : it is mandatory to question the ultimate finality of research projects, their utility and social acceptance, to raise the question of possible negative impacts and consequences – at least, insofar they are identifiable (in this respect, it is worth mentionning the research on consequencialism by the ethical and and precautionnary committee of INRA) – to investigate all possible precautions to take, and envisage the dangers of the “techno-sciences” – that is, the possibility that the fascination exerted by technicity may induce non ethically controlled reserch activities, in other words, that the instruments take over finalty in research orientation. For these reasons, research institutions are now endowed with ethical committees, and young researchers more and more question their work.
But put oneself in question is not sufficient. Other conflicts may arise, even in larger number if science is going to engage itself further in manipulating basic mechanisms of life. It is thus necessary to manage oppositions and conflicts.
3. HOW TO MANAGE OPPOSITION AND CONFLICTS?
As suggested by Guy Paillotin, the basic principle here is that oppositions and controversies are normal, and acceptable. In particular, opponents expressing themselves through press must be considered as legitimate. By contrast, it is not a normal functionning of the society that controversies evolve as conflicts and blockades of research. A first thing to do for those opposing official research is renouncing violence. Yet, enforcing law and recourse to judicial power, if they are necessary, are not sufficient to bring about ethically satisfactory solutions to this class of conflicts.
True solutions must be sought for in transparency and dissemination of information, in such a way as to reduce the asymetry of information between stackholders which has been alluded to above. More generally, research must be capable of explaining what it it is doing in understandable language. Specialisation in accute subdisciplines, each with a small number of informed participants, raises a real problem of control capacity for the Society. The latter must rely on its confidence in the peer community, but one may expect this mode of control will not be considered satisfactory for very long by Society and its representants.
In effect, disseminating information is not enough. No conflict resolution is possible without dialogue. A usefull formula in this respect consists in staging publicly the dialogue between stackholders. The theatical character of the debate induces then to the latter being developped up to its ultimate development. This is what has been achieved by “citizen conferences”, or, since a long time ago, in the French “commissariat du plan”, for instance when Bernard Chevassus-au-Louis set up a debate on the social acceptability of GMO. Experience shows that if oppositions are difficult to solve when speaking of the past, by contrast, they can be overcome by stackholders when they envisage future developments. Reaching an agreement on the future allows to define the steps which are necessary to achieve it, and thus, to benchmark the progression toward the requested results – and this is the basic idea behind the french conception of planning. For this purpose, institutions for informing, meeting each other, and and arbitraging must be created. Actually, such institutions are absolutely necessary, so to speak, to political decision makers, in their capacity to decide. They bring the possibility to pass from a controversial to a more amenable environment, thus making public decision feasible.
In conclusion, we must be aware that we are presently in a crisis context, requiring quick dcisions. But the best situation for the future would be, on the contrary, a situation where conflicts would have been expected, and dealt with before they burst. For that, it is necessary to reform research management, in such a way as making it more acceptable, and thus more easily monitored. In this sens, an interesting break is made by the Claire Marris proposal of a “coevolution”, which defines the rules likely to “fluidly” associate the risk analysis, risk evaluation and risk management, with their links to public decision. I hope that this special session of the French Academie of Agriculture will have usefully participated to the many efforts pursued by numerous institutions in order to set up a new contract between science and society
Michel Griffon, October 18th, 2002