Paris 2002 - A social vision
Académie d'Agriculture de France
Special session, Friday October 18th, 2002 :
Reconciling Science and Society in agriculture
Claire Marris, chargée de recherche, INRA, Paris
Faces with controversies on GMOs, BSE, dioxins… scientists and decision-makers seek to understand public reactions, et to respond to them by putting in place polices for the communication and management of risks and of science in order to reconcile science and society. Unfortunately, these institutions often misdiagnose the problem, because their understanding of public attitudes is in part flawed. As a result, the proposed solutions are out of step with public concerns, and unlikely to resolve the problem identified.
In the first part of this presentation, we will examine the results of a qualitative study (PABE) on public attitudes to agricultural biotechnologies (in 5 European countries: France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United-Kingdom). The results obtained from focus groups with 'ordinary' members of the public (i.e. not engaged in the GM controversy) were compared with an analysis of institutional discourses about the public and its attitude to GMOs.
The study revealed that a number of 'myths' about the public circulate in a very persistent fashion among circles of scientists and decision-makers (and among certain interest groups), and that these were challenged by the results of the focus groups. Thus, public reactions are generally interpreted in terms of lack of knowledge, or of 'non-scientific' or 'ethical' concerns. But the results of this study reveal that the type of knowledge considered necessary in order to form an opinion about GMOs is not defined in the same way by scientists and by ordinary citizens, and that the latter can behold specific knowledge which is relevant but which is not recognised as such by scientists and decision-makers. The PABE study also reveals that public concerns cannot easily be categorised as entirely 'non-scientific' (i.e. ethical, political or socio-economic): on the contrary, the focus group participants recognised the ethical, political and socio-economic dimensions incorporated into the process of production of scientific knowledge.
The lessons from this study can be used to inform discussion about the role of non-scientific citizens in decision-making processes on questions usually informed by scientific expertise. In the second part of this presentation, we will therefore examine three different ways in which the link between science and policy, and the role of non-scientific citizens in policy-making, can be understood. In the first ('technocratic') model, one considers that decisions should be based solely on (sound) science. Ordinary citizens have no legitimate role to play, except as passive recipients of communication at the end of the chain. That model is today largely discredited, and has largely been replaced by a model (that we call 'decisionist') in which public concerns are seen as legitimate - but only relevant to 'non-scientific factors'. These concerns therefore need to be taken into account separately (and generally subsequently) from scientific factors. In the third model(that we name "co-evolutionary'), public concerns are also seen as legitimate, but unlike the second model, there are seen here as relevant to the definition and realisation of scientific expertise itself.
According to a community of researchers in the field of social studies of science that I associate myself with, this third model describes actual practice more accurately, and provides more promising normative suggestions for ways to reconcile science, society and agriculture - and thus resolve the problems identified by the scientific and political institutions involved.