This site is archived. For my brand new live site go to Struggle Forever!

01 July 2011

Making Science Social

I've had my head down the last few weeks working on a proposal for the NSF Science and Technology Studies grant.  We're planning to do an ethnography and other work on the Chesapeake Bay Model.  It's an interesting topic, and very relevant right now.  The model has been around for about 30 years now - continually being tweaked and refined.  However, it has become a large, unwieldy construct that requires a supercomputer to run, and it's not clear that it provides an accurate representation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Recently the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) proposed total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Bay based on the model.  These TMDLs restrict the amount of pollution - mostly nutrient runoff - which is allowed in each state in the Bay's watershed.  The states are then required to implement policies which would reduce their loads below the limit, and many of these policies revolve around best management practices (BMPs) which have been shown - in the model - to reduce nutrient loads.  This has caused an uproar in the scientific community, and among farmers and others who live and work on the Bay or in the Bay watershed. 

To make matters worse, the company LimnoTech was recently hired to conduct a review of the Bay model in response to criticisms that it doesn't match up with other models or with the actual data coming from the Bay.  The study found that this was indeed the case, and, as a result, the EPA requested a review by the CBP's Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC).  This review is currently in progress, and has apparently been very heated.

This is all very interesting and should make for an excellent STS case study.  What's happening, I think, is that the science - the Bay model in this case - is becoming public, and entering into controversy.  This is exactly the kind of thing I've been reading a lot about lately, and I've only been reading more since I've been writing this proposal. 

One very interesting book I've been looking at is Michel Callon's Acting in an Uncertain World.  In it he describes several controversies, but mainly focuses on the issue of how to dispose of nuclear waste in France.  He puts forward an idea he calls hybrid forums - open discussions composed of scientists, politicians, regulators, and members of the lay public designed to make science and decision making more democratic.  There are a lot of good points in the book, which I'll try to cover at a later time, but this idea of the hybrid forum strikes me as important right now.  The problem, according to Callon, is that, historically, there have been these bifurcations - the creations of new publics.  The first was brought about when specialists (scientists and technicians) were put in charge of coming up with scientific solutions to problems.  The second was when political representation was professionalized.  As a result, there are now three different publics - the specialists, the politicians, and the lay public (there are, of course, many more publics, and, as Sarah Whatmore points out, new publics come to be defined through the very controversies that Callon and others are studying).  Granting the benefit of the doubt, Callon argues that, most of the time, the specialists and politicians don't leave the lay public out of the discussion in order to further their own personal financial or political ends.  Rather, he believes that the majority of them do so "for the public good" simply because the public doesn't know what it wants. 

These bifurcations are intended to reduce uncertainty - the uncertainty of the natural world through the knowledge production of science and the uncertainty of the social world through the professionalization of representation - but it becomes clear when scientific knowledge goes public, as in the case of the Bay model, that they do not reduce uncertainty.  In fact, the desire to reduce uncertainty is misplaced, because it is uncertainty which is constitutive of new social forms which will, hopefully, effectively address the problems.  The hybrid forums are meant to mend the bifurcations in order to open the field to these new social forms.

It seems to me that STS has taken a U-turn in some ways.  The early ethnographies of science were effective at demonstrating the social construction of knowledge, but the scientists got upset at this and objected (thus the Science Wars).  Furthermore, the ethnographies did little to change the actual practice of science, and have been unable to predict or address the controversies raised when science goes public - as it so often has in recent years.  Now, STS folks are starting to realize this and are shifting their approach.  Callon says that the social sciences have been called upon in these controversies to make the public voice more clear and concise - using surveys, statistics, etc.  But, he argues, this is only another way to silence the public while "giving it a voice."  Instead, Callon suggest that social scientists ought to use their knowledge to create the kinds of discussions that need to take place if science is going to be made public effectively.  That is, not trying to reduce uncertainty or silence the public, but creating spaces where the public can speak for itself freely, and where scientist and politicians can listen and gain an affective understanding of what the public wants and needs. 

Callon is not the only one doing this, of course.  Latour has MACOSPOL, and Whatmore has her Knowledge Controversies project - I'm sure there are many others out there.  I like this line of work, and I think this project should be really interesting.  Hopefully we get funded.  If so, this will probably be my dissertation.  I'll have more to say on it all later.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails