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Re-imagining science-politics interaction

From August to October MAPS is hosting a virtual Visualisation Lab aimed at equipping MAPS practitioners to effectively communicate technical modeling and process outputs to a wider audience through the use of different visualisation tools and technologies. This blog is adapted from the first Lab presentation.

Figure 1: The traditional view of science-politics interaction.

Figure 1: The traditional view of science-politics interaction.

It’s no coincidence that we are grappling with questions of communication within the MAPS processes at this particular point in history in the way that we are. Our questions about how best to communicate modelling and other technical outputs, how to structure the interaction between different groups of stakeholders, and with which technologies to mediate such interaction is set against a longer history of often-uneasy interactions at the science-policy interface.

Starting in the early 1970s the US National Science Foundation conducted annual surveys to gauge the public’s understanding of science. At the time it was seen as the scientific community’s professional responsibility to educate an ignorant public. This resulted in policies in Britain and America that facilitated a one-way flow of information. The underlying assumption was that scientists were motivated by nothing more than a spirit of enquiry and that the public would trust the scientific community as the objective and sole purveyor of facts. However, by the early 1990’s there existed a perceived ‘crisis of trust’ in the information generated by the scientific community. Issues like mad cow disease, genetically modified organisms, biotechnology and nuclear technologies foregrounded the public’s skepticism about the ways scientists and experts of various kinds went about their daily business.

Governments picked up on this dissatisfaction and attempts were made to open up processes for dialogue and engagement. In Britain this approach was termed  ‘science and society’. This heralded the era of focus groups, consultation papers and public hearings, which still enjoys large-scale popularity within various governments. Despite this progress, the link between everyday research processes and priorities, and public values remains unclear. Often various groups of stakeholders are consulted late in the research process when they have little chance to influence the agenda or steer the course of expert inquiry, or they are consulted in a formulaic and superficial way to give a political rubber stamp to a foregone conclusion.

In recent years some parties have been pushing to move public engagement with science ‘further upstream’. The aim of this move is to enable stakeholders to influence the values and questions that drive research, to ‘frame the picture’ so to speak and to gain access to the vested interests behind scientific research agendas. The hope is that concerned stakeholders will no longer stand at the end of the pipe and take whatever is given to them but rather that scientific research will gain political legitimacy by being informed, from the start, by public values.

So why this trend over the past 40 years?

Scientific research generally develops through claims and counter claims about the way the world is. These claims and counter claims result in disputes. This is generally healthy and required to progress our understanding. Every now and then a scientific dispute gets ‘heated’ when the science spills out into the public realm and wider society becomes concerned with the consequences of a particular discovery, technology or prediction. These concerns are then communicated through the media, the internet and even new forms of political associations (think for instance of the rise of green parties and climate change bodies within governments and civil society).

Some scholars have termed such heated disputes ‘knowledge controversies’. In such situations there is not merely disagreement about ‘the facts’ but also about who or what counts as an authoritative source. The processes through which knowledge is produced become the focus of public scrutiny. Knowledge controversies are often viewed by policy makers and scientists as problematic, because they are difficult to manage. A knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss controversies as based on ignorance. There is also the understandable need to settle the controversy with a definitive review of the science to establish clear, indisputable matters of fact.

However, what do you do if the science is itself uncertain? Think for instance about projections of future change in rainfall patterns due to climate change or the difficulties of quantifying the socio-economic impacts thereof. In such situations disputes about facts or the courses of action contingent on them can’t be resolved through a review of the science because we are faced with irreducible uncertainties. What is needed to resolve such impasses and embark on legitimate collective actions is the creation of novel processes that acknowledge the social and scientific dimensions of the controversy. Such processes may draw on different types of expertise and novel methodologies to arrive at a conclusion that is both as politically legitimate and scientifically rigorous as we can hope for given the uncertainties and interests at stake.

What knowledge controversies foreground is that there are no neat delineations between science, business and politics. Traditional approaches to scientific-political communication, implied a visualisation of experts and publics as belonging to fairly neatly defined groups (Figure 1). Experts were often from one discipline, or a small set of institutions or enjoyed some government mandate. The public was a big amorphous group that included all the non-experts, policy-makers or any dissenting voices that were not part of the official group of experts or did not have formal academic training within a specified discipline. Knowledge controversies reveal a messier reality (Figure 2). Groups of actors, sometimes individuals, sometimes institutions, are connected through multiple relationships in shifting networks. Expertise of different kinds (sometimes academic, sometimes professional, sometimes informal) is distributed throughout the network.

Figure 2: The complicated reality?

Figure 2: The complicated reality?

In trying to understand how knowledge and action is generated in the face of uncertainty, many researchers map out knowledge networks. Specific tools have been developed for this purpose.

While the Visualisation Lab will focus mainly on tools and technologies for effectively communicating technical outputs to MAPS process stakeholders, it may be useful to start by taking a step back and visualising the network of actors involved in these processes, informally mapping out the MAPS process networks within their specific national contexts. A few questions to consider when doing this include:

  • How are the different actors connected directly and indirectly?
  • Who or what form key strategic nodes in the network?
  • What are the different types or areas of expertise different actors can contribute to the MAPS process?
  • Who is currently left out of the network, but could potentially lend political legitimacy and technical credibility?
  • What are the technologies that can be used to optimise communication between different nodes in the network?
  • How can we structure our MAPS process to feed in the contribution from different actors in the most efficient way?

Whether you are a modeller, sectoral expert, a facilitator a research lead or project coordinator, such a visualisation could help you both generate and communicate MAPS outputs better, contributing both scientific rigor and political legitimacy.

Jean-Pierre Roux is part of the MAPS International team based at SouthSouthNorth

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