Science - June 10, 2004

‘Scientists have political influence because they do not make it explicit’

The mainstream view of the role of science in society is that science is objective and not politically motivated. Not so argued Professor Sheila Jasanoff last week while visiting Wageningen. Science as an institution does have political influence, but can only exercise influence by denying that it does have influence, thereby maintaining the illusion of objectivity. A bad thing, as the influence it has is not made explicit and is therefore not open for debate.

Jasanoff is one of the leading authorities in the United States in the field of Science and Technology Studies, which focuses on the influence of science and technology on society and politics. A professor at Harvard, she also founded the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Last week she gave the concluding lecture in a series organised by the Technology and Agrarian Development group (TAO) at Wageningen University.

Jasanoff’s talk focused on biotechnology and the way science influences the governance of biosafety issues. Under the Cartagena protocol, countries have agreed to draw up biosafety rules governing the application of biotechnology. Each country is allowed to devise its own rules, but in practice the biosafety rules of many developing countries are drawn up by international consultants, who to a large extent copy the rules that are accepted by the international scientific community. The way these are set up means, for example, that while the threat of a decline in biodiversity is a legitimate reason to block biotechnology applications in many countries, the possibility that introducing a new GM crop will exclude poor farmers from the new market is not. According to Jasanoff the reason for this state of affairs is that biodiversity is an issue that is much discussed in the global scientific community, while the social effects of GM crops are rarely touched upon.

Jasanoff elaborated on how the influence of science is related to how science works as an institution. Advisors, consultants and researchers may well have personal ethical considerations and indeed there is no lack of debate about the ethics of biotechnology. But that’s beside the point argued Dr Kees Jansen of TAO, who hosted Jasanoff’s lecture. What is not debated is the political influence that science as an institution is capable of exercising. In order to maintain its position of authority, science needs to maintain that it is objective, not normative, and free of political motives. However, scientific committees and advisory boards do of course adhere to moral norms and values, which influence the advice they give. The problem is that this is not acknowledged openly, and as a consequence there is no political debate. According to Jansen the core of the problem is that science is a highly globalised institution, even more so than trade. As a result it tends to assume that generic principles apply in all situations, ignoring local diversity and complexity. “Because of the unruliness of global politics there is a lack of reflexivity on the political character of global science,” was Jansen’s conclusion.

Joris Tielens