To act or not to act?

© Illustration: L. Durieux
© Illustration: L. Durieux

Threats of epidemics, the security issues or ethical problems that come with new technologies, damage to the environment or upheavals in the global economy… such issues, of direct concern to each and every one of us, place politicians and scientists in the firing line. Citizens are growing tired of the monopoly held by policymakers and experts, and are wanting more and more to understand what is happening around them and to have a say in it.

In the space of just two or three decades, the place held by science and technology within the political functioning of society has undergone a radical change, both in size and nature. We are witnessing an interacting twofold movement, consisting on the one hand of what science can offer and on the other of society’s demand for answers dreamed up and guaranteed by science. Science is continually breaking new ground. In GMOs, nanotechnologies, genetic diseases or all-pervasive communications, it is developing a manna of knowledge with enormous promise (wiping out epidemics, curing genetic diseases, raising life expectancy, etc.). But its effects can also be highly negative, not least the destruction of the environment and climate change. In addition, a number of scientific discoveries are starting to challenge ethical frontiers.

Jekyll and Hyde researchers

Faced with questions requiring knowledge they do not possess, policymakers in the public – or private – sectors have no other choice than to turn to ‘wise men’ to underwrite the merits of their decisions. But when researchers leave their laboratories to give advice and guidance, they are changing functions and moving into the field of expertise. This doubling up is not without a certain amount of ambiguity.

Of course scientists are required to base their advice on objective facts. The link between pleural cancer and exposure to asbestos is amply demonstrated – even if it took a long time for this truth to express itself. Such a straightforward cause and effect scenario is, however, not the usual case in any scientific expertise. The boundary between the objectivity of the data and the subjectivity of the responses derived from them remains to a great extent blurred and uncertain.

This movement of contemporary science is paradoxical: the more knowledge breaks new ground, the more it gains in complexity, and the more diversified the issues inherent in this very complexity become. 20th century quantum physics established the unique concept of ‘the uncertainty principle’ – that the very observation of a phenomenon generates uncertainty as to how to measure it. This concept can be extended to virtually every area, with science being both a judge of and a party to the advances it makes possible. And the accumulation of knowledge is constantly challenging established certainties, with a large portion of discoveries drawing their inspiration from a perpetual questioning of established concepts…

A sceptical society

Beyond this, the ambiguity of any scientific expertise is rooted in a bipolarisation between experts and policymakers. This intimate relationship has long ignored a third party: society as a whole. The traditional and comfortable assumption of the inherently beneficial nature of science is no longer accepted as true. ‘There is concern in society that scientific advances have become double-edged; and there is also a fear that science-based technology is running out of control,’ says Oxford (UK) University’s Jerry Ravetz(1). ‘Instead of the pure curiosity of the discoverer, the direction of this sort of science is to a great extent motivated by power and profit, with eventual societal benefit mediated through those primary goals. Also, this new sort of science is not immune to manipulation and abuse, be it the neglect of unpopular lines of research, the suppression of unwelcome results, the pressuring of regulatory authorities, or the victimisation of critics’.

From Chernobyl to Kyoto

A number of high-focus developments and events have marked the path of this questioning of ‘technological innocence’. In the ’70s, when several European countries were building nuclear power stations, the emergence of a structured protest against nuclear energy can be seen as a ‘pioneering’ manifestation of a refusal of this option and as a test bed for a much wider environmental movement. One decade later, the results of this opposition led several states, first and foremost Germany, to abandon, or at least put on ice, nuclear energy, with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster playing a major role in swaying opinion…

But it was in the early ’90s that a ‘third state’ started to appear in society, intervening in a much more systematic way in the cosy relationship between scientists and policymakers. Environmental and consumer protection issues became the driving force behind the formation of a growing number of NGOs. Surfing on this wave and opting for spectacular media operations, GreenPeace became (and remains) a thorn in the side of the scientific and political establishment, playing a major role in shaking the foundations of trust – even if the group only represents the tip of a particularly large iceberg.

With the question of human influence on climate change gaining increased focus, scientists were the first to take this societal malaise seriously, using the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Summit and the 1997 Kyoto agreement to open the eyes of the political class to the fundamental reality of this problem. We are now all too well aware of the major global challenge that climate represents.

The European dimension

As an institution with a regulatory and legislative function transcending national political powers, the EU has long been a decision-making venue making repeated use of scientific expertise. This has led it to forge extensive links with a wide range of players from different cultural backgrounds and with varying scientific and professional specialisations.

In 1992, the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty paved the way for a new approach to risk – the major object of the use of outside expertise, by taking into Community law the fundamental rule of the precautionary principle. Immediately after the ‘mad cow’ crisis, in which the EU’s health decisions, with their dramatic consequences for animal farmers, were perforce dependent on the deployment of a vast range of expertise, covering both medical and veterinary issues and the commercial organisation of the beef and sheep sectors. This led, in 1997, to a complete overhaul of the EU’s system of scientific committees in the areas of food safety and consumer protection, with a further step being taken in 2002 with the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)(2).

In that same year, the Commission adopted guidelines for the use of outside expertise on which it constantly relies for its health, environmental and consumer protection policies, or again in socio-economic, scientific and technological fields. The questions are manifold. How and by whom are the subjects to be evaluated chosen? Who decides on the composition of advisory panels – researchers, in particular – at a time when science is becoming increasingly complex, necessitating multidisciplinary approaches? What place is to be given to counter-expertise and to differences of opinion or advice between experts? In which form will results be published? All this depends on the qualifications, independence and objectivity of the players invited to give their opinions, and on the transparency of their work and their findings.

Moving on beyond procedural issues, the European Commission – without doubt itself confronted by the Gordian knot of the democratic deficit weighing on the institutions – has posed the question of how to have society participate in scientific and technological choices and evaluations. This has been a long journey. For years, the EU, long criticised for its ‘purely economic’ orientation, was preoccupied with building a great ‘single market’, with one of its major extensions being the introduction of the euro.

Society and knowledge

At the start of this century and reflecting a consensus ‘of anxiety’ felt by all Member States, priorities evolved over a wide front towards the concerns of the future. This new situation has given the current Lisbon Strategy, of moving beyond the concept of an information society – which in the ’80s translated into a primarily industrial priority targeting information and communication technologies – towards a ‘knowledge society’, currently under construction, with the key word ‘market’ being replaced by ‘society’.

In European research programmes, ‘science, governance, society’ is becoming a major development focus, alongside social sciences and humanities. Out of this concentration of analyses and studies a true ‘European laboratory’ has been born, with a new formulation of this triptych beginning to develop.

Within civil society, a fundamental citizen movement is demanding to be part of the debate. This is gradually growing into a protest force that neither politicians nor scientists can afford to ignore. The demand for transparency is gaining ground. Policymakers and experts have long known their opponents: the various associations, themselves supported by reputable scientists, with whom they must negotiate. In this regard, the Commission’s advisory body EURAB(3) has called for a greater commitment towards society from researchers: ‘(They) work in systems that are rational and instrumental, and have a tendency to assume that society behaves likewise. But society does not always behave rationally, and in certain sensitive areas, researchers should keep in mind that their systems operate in a public context.’

More recently, citizen debates, consensus conferences and experiments in participatory democracy have emerged in various forms, differently organised, both broad-based and focused on specific issues. Many of them relate in one way or another to science (medicine, the environment, etc.), offering democracy – if the information provided is comprehensive and covers both sides of the argument – a new hand of cards.

In this evolution, science is benefiting from a clarification of its fundamental value: independence. ‘Knowledge cannot be controlled or geared by the wishes of the public authorities,’ states IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Chairman Rajendra Pachauri. ‘We must do our utmost to prevent politics from interfering with scientific results. Our duty is precisely to disseminate all scientifically established knowledge to the public. It is a duty that I heartily endorse.’

Didier Buysse

  1. «Science, Gouvernance and Society – EU Research in Social Sciences and Humanities», J.R. Ravetz,
  2. ‘Improving the knowledge base for better policies’,,
  3. European Research Advisory Board,

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Le malaise de l’innovation

In 2007, DG Research commissioned a group of experts to study the impact of the concept of the knowledge society on citizens (‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’). A central question of this project was the nature of and possible answers to the malaise that civil society feels towards certain techno-scientific innovations, particularly in relation to their objectives, the social changes they bring and the underlying risks. The research was conducted very openly by groups that included not just experts, but also students of ‘hard’ sciences and human sciences (sociology, philosophy and law students), citizens who had expressed their interest in taking part in the study and trade unions.

The conclusions of this study centre in particular on the tendency to focus exclusively on a knowledge society motivated by a frenzied race for innovation and efficiency imposed by globalisation, which, its authors state, poses a serious problem of acceptance by society.

The study explores many avenues for having civil society experience the dynamics of innovation as a collective and diversified undertaking, demo cratically shared by all.