October 8, 2011

Genetically modified foods and public engagement

A great blog you should check out this weekend is Jack Stilgoe's "Responsible Innovation." My grad colleagues and I recently enjoyed discussing his "'How' technologies and 'Why' technologies." An excerpt:
Some emerging technologies are defined by how they do things. So called ‘platform-technologies’ or ‘enabling technologies’ like synthetic biology provide new ways of doing a whole lot of different stuff.... Geoengineering, on the other hand, is defined by its intentions (I wrote about this here). Its target is a future in which we are able to influence the climate. This doesn’t mean that geoengineering researchers desire this future. Many of them would despise such a prospect. But they are interested in it. So while nano and syn bio are defined by the how, geo is defined by its why. This invites different sorts of governance and difference sorts of public engagement.
But his recent post that really intrigued me was an interview with Stilgoe on engaging the public in dialogues about genetically modified (GM) foods. Stilgoe discusses how going into a public dialogue about GM foods is different than with a more politically-neutral, or less entrenched, topic (see my previous post on GM and risk; also see my post on public dialogues). He also talks about "upstream engagement," which means involving the public in science throughout the research process, rather than just dealing with the possible consequences of the results. On engaging with stakeholders:
[Q:] The report speaks of engagement with both stakeholders and the public. In the case of GM, what do you perceive to be the difference, and do we need a different approach for each? 
[Stilgoe:] Absolutely we need a different approach for each. When you are engaging upstream, everyone is a potential stakeholder; yet at the same time there are no obvious direct stakeholders because there isn’t anything yet for people to have a stake in, except researchers and the people who govern that research. In a downstream discussion like GM, there are clearly established stakeholders: farmers, regulators, politicians, interest groups, supermarkets, and animal feed companies who all need to find a way to thrash things out in a fairly old fashioned way. I think that confusing this activity with public engagement is unhelpful and puts far too large a burden on public engagement. 
I think there’s another important set of lessons that need to be learnt which we didn’t cover in the report, particularly about how to engage with stakeholders. These more controversial issues involve direct action, lobbying and engagement in ‘uninvited spaces’ that government is not controlling and is less comfortable with. With an issue such as GM, working out mechanisms for this form of engagement may be more important than convening a formal public dialogue.
Really interesting stuff to think about! Have a good weekend!

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