participation essay - UBC Blogs


Oct 23, 2013 (3 years and 7 months ago)



In 2003 the results of a national survey
n biotechnology show

that “
opinion of the acceptability of GM foods is split. Half of the public approves of plant
based GM foods, while only about a quarter approves of animal
based GM foods.

of GM food has declined somewhat in the past two years and more people are
uncertain what they think of these products.” (Food policy institute, 2003)

These results
how evidence
towards the trend of declining


modified p
roducts in the United States, a country that has conventionally led the way
with support for

transgenic food

This trend exemplifies the problem with the FDA’s
precarious position: if it loses its legitimacy as a regulatory body, what will happen to the
blic acceptance of its decisions? This is how the normative need for legitimacy is tied
to the instrumental outcome of acceptance. The issue of public acceptance is especially
salient for the AquAdvantage salmon as it is the first animal product up for hum

Public reaction is an important social

dimension in these [technical]
conflicts, with citizen opinion shaping the trajectory of scientific development and
technological adoption
” (Brossard, 2004).
As I have shown the FDA is failing to regulate
the salmon in a way that promotes public acceptance, the question becomes, how to
improve this process?

Public Trust

A way to improve acceptance through legitimacy would be to raise public trust in
the regu
latory process.
The link between trust and acceptance is something that has been
picked up by regulators, as
he UK government has concluded that ‘in order to handle


risks to the public

effectively government needs to win and retain public trust’ (Cabinet
Office, Strategy

Unit 2002, 76).

defines trust

“An expression of confidence
between parties in an exchange transaction” (

continues to argue that public
trust is based on competency, fairness, and efficiency (156). Trust results in the
acceptance of decisions without questioning the rational behind it. Public trust is
especially important in regulatory bodies as these bodies

are seen as watchdogs that are
supposed to protect the population from the disruptive and destructive consequences of
science. To conclude, acceptance is contingent on trust, so to get acceptance, it is
necessary that there is trust in the regulatory proc

Trust in scientific regulation stems directly from the perceived objectivity of
Nevertheless, using the competency, fairness and efficiency formula for trust, it
is clear that the failings of the FDA add up to a scenario where public trust

is low. First,
competency is lacking if not all concerns are addressed. However, if the FDA itself made
a judgment based on wider concerns it would lose its basis of “objective science”, which
would make the decision lack fairness.
Finally, the efficiency

of the FDA concerning this
decision itself been criticized, but its inability to respond to the public has caused the
decision to halt.
This leads back to the main puzzle of the salmon: if the science

political, how to fix issues of trust to ultimately

get acceptance in decisions?
The solution
is to

find a way to institutionalize science politics.
In this section I plan to lay out the
normative reasoning for participation, its practical failings in the realm of science and
technology policy, and how del
iberative models could potentially fix these failings. I


hope to demonstrate that a deliberative, participatory body would result in higher
acceptance in the final decision than the current regulatory path.

One way to institutionalize science politics
uld be to
have experts regulate
social and ethical issues that are beyond the FDA’s mandate, to improve the perceived
competency of the decision.

This idea is that academic ethicists can make decisions on
controversial issues free of conflicts of interests
Bioethics, the study of controversial
ethics brought out by advances in biology and
, is a field that has
institutionalized the examination of ethical issues in science and technology police. The
ethical framing in the United States has pushed
official bioethics towards utilitarian
considerations based on balancing risks and benefits, which coincides with market

framing of regulatory issues around biotechnology (Jasanoff, 175).
Conversely, a

problem with ethics board

is that
“Where mo
rality is used as a

as a way of

the central issues concerning

a subject, this has the capacity to limit
the way that it becomes politicized … A further level of criticism might be about the
danger of bioethicists

becoming shapers of mor
al discourses
” (Miah, 412)
In the case of
the salmon, while ethicists could address some of these issues, they would also serve to
further isolate the public from the discourse surrounding the salmon. This isolation
creates gaps in knowledge, furthering t
he “mutually tolerable ignorance” between expert
and citizen.

While expert ethicists would help to more of the issues surrounding the salmon,
they do not completely solve the problems of legitimacy that face the FDA. While it deals
with the competency as
pect of trust, it does not help with fairness, which is engaging


those who will be effected by the decision.
, I have criticized the FDA for its
inability to deal wi
th issues raised by the public. Therefore another way of
increasing publ
ic trust would be to increase public engagement.

The Value of Participation

Increased participation goes hand in hand with transparency and clarity, which
contributes to increased trust and public acceptance of a final decision
There are strong
normative and instrumental arguments for using a model that includes public
participation in the creation of policy that will regulate genetically modified salmon. The
basic normative argument is that in a democratic society, citizens shou
ld have the right
to have their concerns addressed, which is not currently being done by the FDA. The
basic instrumental arguments are decisions that include a mode for participation are
more likely to be accepted by the public then does that don’t. Incre
ased public
participation in the salmon decision would serve to bring legitimacy back into the
decision making progress which would have the consequence of making the final decision
more acceptable to the public.
This a version of Rollins especially strong

stance that “It
is both morally and pragmatically essential that the public be a pivotal part of the
decision process, for they incur the risks, and they will be asked to accept the results of
biotechnology innovation”(95).
Public participation by those a
ffected by the decision,
that is the public, would increase fairness in the decision, leading to more trust.

Traditional democratic values include values of individual autonomy, self
development, and the right of those affected by decisions ability to part
icipate effectively.
However, these values are becoming increasingly
hard to maintain in technological


complex societies.
The decision to

the salmon
raises fundamental questions
about social values, nature, and economic justice


a democratic soci
ety there is
normative value to addressing the concerns of citizens, it can be concluded that there
should be more participation in this regulatory proces
s (Moore, 2010)

The instrumental value of increased participation is that citizens are far more
y to accept a decision if their views have been accorded respect and consideration,
even if they don’t agree with the decision

(Marchant and Scallion, Rollin, Irwin,
Hartley). Rollin

and Marchant go on to argue that if concerns are not properly
at an early stage in regulation, they will grow and burst forth at a later date
with potentially d
evastating consequences. Rollin

argues that people see unknown
dangers that could harm humans and the environment in biotechnology. They therefore
wish to be
involved in the decision making process with regards to something new and
frightening that they do not understand. When science and governments fail to address
these issues, people feel suspicious and suspect they are not being told the truth, and
begin to

openly distrust the government sciences axis creating di
strust in the technology
itself (42

Equally important, they are far more open to misinformation from self
proclaimed “experts” who paint a negative picture of biotechnology. Hagendijk extends
is argument to say that greater participation leads to greater trust in experts, given
empirical evidence of consensus conferences.

The Politics of Public Knowledge

It is impossible to address the issue of incorporating more public input into the
decision without considering the politics of public knowledge. There have been


many institutional experiments conducted to try to gather data on public understanding of
biotechnology, as problems of knowledge are known precursor to gaining social
ce of GMO policy (Jasanoff 260).

“Public Understanding of Science” is a term
that first became popular in early 1980’s in the
United Kingdom

when there was growing
concern by parts of the scientific community about the divide that existed between
s and the rest of society (Durant, 1998). The definition of a public understanding
of science is ambiguous, as all three terms can be defined in many ways. However, the
term was first used with the normative reasoning that the public should know more about

science, for the benefit of both science and the public. This reasoning was based on the
idea that there is deficit in public scientific knowledge, and that knowledge dissemination
is key in solving this deficit (Durant, 1998).
What is implicit in this id
ea is that public
understanding of science is based on knowledge or ignorance of facts.
One concept for
measuring how well
the public understands

science is scientific literacy.
literacy can be defined as “the level of understanding of science
and technology needed
to function as citizens in a modern industrial society”(Miller & Pardo). In the US, levels
of scientific literacy are measured by tests and questionnaires, and seem to conclude that
the general public is largely ignorant of science an
d technology (Hagendijk, 2004).
results have created what is known as the “deficit model”, which is that “the public is
assumed to be “deficient” while science is “sufficient””( Sturgus & Allum, 2003).

is the basis

of an

objection to increasin
articipation in science policy:
the public is

scientifically illiterate, gullible and naïve, and unable to understand
scientifically based arguments against the reality of certain risks.
Given this view of the
public, involving them in technical
decisions, while it would increase fairness, would


decrease competency and efficiency of the decision.
“The public’s doubts about the value
of scientific progress

or fears about new or unfamiliar innovations, such as genetically
modified organisms

are due to ignorance of the science behind them. Lacking a

understanding of the relevant facts, people fall back on mystical beliefs and
irrational fears

of the unknown”
(Sturgis & Allum, 2003)
. This is the reason why we have
experts in the first p

not only is a

lay persons knowledge is not adequate to make
ese highly technical decisions, they will rely on fear to make judgments of things they
don’t know.

Another theory put forth for understanding public opinion is the low informed
c model, which also supports public ignorance.
This is the model that individuals
aim to simply satisfice on an issue, that is to only understand the bare minimum of
information on a topic. If a population has low information, they are likely to rely on th
preexisting value judgments (

Recent research examining public views

science and technology debates has highlighted the strong heuristic role

played by value
predispositions and media content in shaping general views

about science

A problem with

PUS research
is that it
often concludes by creating a public that is
so ignorant and illiterate that they are not capable of performing basic democratic duties.
This is not useful. If one believes in democracy, then it follows that one believes in the
educability of the public an
d its insight. After all, the public judges matters of

in voting and in the jury system.
While I do not believe that the conclusion of
an examination of public knowledge should be that the public is not able to participate


public knowledge and understanding of science do pose a problem for

concerning genetically engineered products
. However, public knowledge does not
pose a problem solely for
a regulatory model that relies on
participation, but for expert
models of de
cision making as well. If the public is falling back on “irrational fears of the
then it is unlikely that they will accept a decision that approves and does not
label a genetically modified animal.

In the case of the salmon, an understanding o
f public knowledge is important to
evaluate public trust. As previously explained, trust in an institution results in accepting
decisions even if the rational behind it is not understood. Therefore, if participation buil

trust, it would not matter that mu
ch of the public did not understand the rational, or the
science, of a decision.
problems of knowledge are known precursor to
gaining social acceptance of GMO policy, they should be examined.
does not make

In technology intensive societies, the construction of government credibility
necessarily encompasses the public production of scientific knowledge.
The institutional
background of the United States has constrained the framework in which public
knowledge r
elevant to biotechnology is produced and validated. The FDA, the main
regulatory body for GM products, depends on manufacturers to supply information
regarding the risks of its products. Therefore the burden of being a primary source of
information falls t
o interested parties, such as the biotechnology industry, academic
researchers and environmental groups. As these different groups often present


information in a starkly different way, the result in a knowledge landscape that is highly
fractured and hard t
o negotiate.
By examining

the different ways that basic facts about the
salmon are portrayed from different sources

(appendix A)
, the difficulties of forming an
unbiased opinion become obvious.


For over a decade, headlines have questioned the safety of b
iotechnology related food
products. Frankenfood, F
rmaeddon Biotechnology has also been the launch pad for
many popular entertainment depictions of science (Jurassic Park).
The use of the word

Google trend of GM food vs Frankenfood shows the

rise of GM food

Herring argues that science is inherently vulnerable to framing from different sources
because the nature of science itself does not fit with politics. Science is inherently
falsifiable, as epistemological commitments preclude ever having

a completely definitive
argument (Herring, 2011). Therefore the science of the genetic modified salmon is in a
difficult position

fish are 99% sterile

can still be disproved. Leaves room for


Politics makes impossible knowledge demands: to
disprove negatives . uncertainty/caution

makes uncertainty and caution natural and rational


Some science are especially vulnerable: cognitively distant + information costs + uncertainty
(genetic energy is very cognitively distant)


This leads to great p
ower in epistemic brokers

place in democracy gives citizens responsibility
to inform themselves, but we are still at the mercy of epistemic brokers : those who give
knowledge to the public.

Problems of knowledge: not very well informed public, fracture
information, science that is open to
contention. What is the best way to fix this and build trust?