Gibbs & Raman PCST2012 Making Technologies and their Publics Visible in Science Communication
Summary of paper presented to the 12th International Public Communication of Science andTechnology Conference. 18th – 20th April 2012 Florence, Italy.Making technologies and their publics visible in science communication: thecase of low-carbon technology Beverley Gibbs and Sujatha Raman Institute for Science in Society School of Sociology & Social Policy University of Nottingham. UKIn recent years, UK government, research funders, learned societies and industry havesponsored numerous dedicated initiatives to engage publics around so-called emergingtechnologies. These include various “top-down” attempts to communicate basic scientificknowledge, convey enthusiasm about research and possibilities for future technologicalapplications (especially common in the biomedical domain) and increasingly, communicatescience related to emerging collective problems (climate change especially). They alsoinclude ostensibly more interactive efforts, such as public dialogues on topics such as GMcrops, stem cells and nanoscience.These efforts have been widely studied as attempts to create or constitute publics aroundscience and technology in specific ways that are open to question (e.g. Irwin 2001, Irwin2006, Martin 2008, Michael 2009, Mohr 2011). By contrast, the ‘self-creation’ or emergenceof active publics has traditionally not been considered in the public engagement literature,though it has been studied under the rubric of social movement studies, or latterly,citizenship (e.g. Elam & Bertilsson 2003, Hess 2010, Walker et.al. 2007). Active publicshave, however, begun to impact on discussions of public engagement since 2003’s GMNation? where self-selected, highly motivated individuals armed with various critiques of GMcrops attended open events organised to discuss the possibility of commercialising GM, andoverturned all ‘normal’ expectations of how such public dialogues should be run. In light ofcritiques by policymakers and dialogue evaluators that these ‘uninvited’ publics wereunrepresentative of the general public, policy expectations of public dialogue as a spacemeant only for ‘innocent citizens’ have in turn been critically examined (Lezaun and Soneryd2007, Wynne 2007).Therefore the question we ask here is twofold. Firstly, how can we account for different waysin which publics are constituted around science and technology? We suggest thatexamining the socio-technical network around an imagined or existing technology canilluminate the creation or emergence of publics (including those of the kind ‘unwanted’ or‘uninvited’ by science policymakers or engagement practitioners). Secondly, we ask whichpublics are made visible through these networks, suggesting that networks are bounded bythe actors within.‘Upstream’ and ‘Downstream’ technologiesOur first step contrasts the differing nature of engagement that takes place ‘upstream’ (witha ‘technology in principle’, where economic and physical configurations are yet to be
determined) and engagement ‘downstream’ (where economic, physical, technological andsocial implications are readily apparent, with applications proximate or already in existence). Upstream and Downstream Communication: Differing Challenges• Upstream is unformed, conceptual • Downstream is tangible, here in the world• Publics are shadowy, unknown, not yet • Emerged publics more typical emerged• Engagement focuses on knowledge and • Engagement closely aligned with risk enrolment (and marketing)• Public voice via friendly science • Public voice often more agonistic with engagement or carefully designed contested power, sometimes negotiated formal dialogues via regulators, planning processes• Consensus is an ideal to be pursued • Opposition can quickly become hostile and entrenched• Conflict often based on knowledge • Conflict focuses on the shape this claims, sometimes innate values technology takes, and features of the wider (socio-technical) network• Engagement work can be carefully • Efforts to ‘stage-manage’ remain designed - so can its publicsOur underpinning hypothesis is that where engagement is ‘upstream’, there is moreopportunity to carefully manage the engagement process and bring in the right sort ofpublics (from the organisers’ standpoint). Even where there is significant controversy, thereis potential for ‘friendly’ engagement as in 2008’s UK stem cell dialogue (Mohr, Raman andElliott 2009). By contrast, where the technology is already evident, its tangibility or materialitymakes a difference. Efforts to stage-manage public proceedings persist but they’re morelikely to be disrupted by publics organised around the entanglements that structure thetechnology. To illustrate some network aspects that shape the emergence of active publics,we present two short cases based on renewable energy technology in Scotland. The firstdraws on the case of wind energy to show how a perceived diffuse support for renewableenergy in principle can quickly become irrelevant in the face of a specific material proposal.The second, on proposed biomass plants, shows networks wider than the local, as globaleffects and publics are evoked during processes of opposition.Downstream begets (some) publics, though still masks others? Wind energy inScotlandScotland draws on a vast natural resource base (rich in wind and tidal energy) with some ofthe most aggressive renewable energy targets in Europe. As a mature technology with
accessible entry costs, windpower has become a significant technology in harnessing thisresource and meeting targets - not without controversy. Emergent publics have coalescednot so much around contested evidence for climate change, but around whether onshorewind is the best solution, and around physical manifestations of particular developments.Concerns span physical, procedural, commercial and political arenas – aspects which onlycome to light when technologies approach implementation. Active publics have disruptednumerous developments, expressing concerns about siting, scale, operating parameters,development process, ownership and physical grid connection as well as more technically-based issues such as intermittency. This explanation of the complexity of public responsecan be contrasted with more general exhortations of the ‘green economy’, where technologyis considered unambiguously good. By taking seriously the behaviour of emergent publics,we more fully see the nature and extent of the broader ‘socio-technical network’ opposition isembedded in.Expanding networks – and publics: the biomass caseHowever, the wind energy network made visible by active publics only goes so far. Moreremote publics involved in producing materials that make up turbines are being made visiblein trade and financial press, with concern about China’s control over the ‘rare earth metals’essential for producing many modern technologies including PV cells and wind turbines.Interestingly, there is little discussion or elaboration of this in activism around Scottish windpower.This is in direct contrast to proposals for new biomass capacity in Scotland. Where the windenergy case exemplifies local opposition and local concerns, the biomass case illustrates amore global public being invoked. Additional to immediate misgivings about siting, scale andlocal pollution, questions are also raised about where this biomass material comes from,what impacts its extraction has on the remote region, and what ethical promises can begiven for the plant’s future operation.So, do ‘technologies produce publics’?We might say yes, though in a way that is highly dependent on context where publics differin origin and intent as well as composition and location. Publics created by a sponsoraround upstream technologies can be contrasted with publics that emerge from civil societyaround near-market (downstream) technologies. Materiality makes a difference, and helpsunpack the ‘black box’ of technology, making the wider socio-technical network more visible.However, this is an uneven ongoing process – in the low-carbon case, some parts of thenetwork (and its publics) remain relatively invisible (e.g. the sourcing of rare earth metals inwind energy), though are becoming more visible elsewhere (e.g. the consequences ofglobally sourcing biomass for energy generation). Finally, we should not make the mistake ofconsidering emergent publics to be solely oppositional – it is not difficult to find examples ofemergent publics being incorporated into mechanisms of sustainable energy governance, orelsewhere, working with the pharmaceutical industry in the search for new treatments forrare diseases. Whether such public/private partnerships deliver fairer outcomes or representa form of co-optation into elite agendas is a key question needing further research.
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