The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is considered one of the most (if not the) prestigious groups of scientists in the US. The National Research Council, their research arm, produces reports that are ostensibly the pinnacle of objectivity and scientific rigor. But Steve Hilgartner, in his book Science on Stage, aims to show that even the pinnacle of scientific objectivity is still dependent on social processes. While the NAS are considered knowledge experts, you don’t see behind the curtain. Hilgartner uses the metaphor of stage management, where the NAS staff, scientists, and report contributors carefully manage the end products. Deciding something like what nutritional standards to recommend is obviously not only value-laden, but is also under pressure from politically motivated food lobby groups, as Marion Nestle shows in her book, Food Politics.
The NAS doesn’t use overt political rhetoric. Like most scientists, they strive to be as objective as possible. But Hilgartner shows that making knowledge claims is political. The NAS uses certain rhetoric to reify their role as sanctioned experts, and to eliminate sources of controversy. In an anthropology class I once took, we referred to this as impression management. Like Hilgartner’s “stage management,” we often consciously and unconsciously say and do things to create a certain impression of ourselves in different situations. Scientists engage in the same social process.
So is the NAS’s stage management technique problematic? Among STS scholars, the answer is “yes.” In fact, James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis produced a booklet called “See-Through Science,” which calls of “upstream engagement” in science policy. As we discussed in class, this call for more transparent scientific processes and more space for public deliberation. Two topics we’ve discussed in class: community-based participatory research and Hispanic girls’ engagement in science and engineering, both seek to make science more open and transparent to diverse populations. And already, it’s obvious that the academy is slowly reacting to pressures to become more open.
In the recent past, most decisions about science policy have been made by a small group of people: mostly white, mostly male scientists. In 1975 at the recommendation of the NAS, eminent biochemist Paul Berg organized the well-known Asilomar conference to discuss the ethical implications of biotechnology. The conference was attended by almost entirely white male scientists. Wilsdon and Willis quote Sheila Jasanoff, writing, “Thirty years and several social upheavals later, the Berg committeeʼs composition looks astonishingly narrow: eleven male scientists of stellar credentials, all already active in rDNA experimentation” (p. 10). In other words, today we expect decisions about science policy to be made by not only experts, but also issue stakeholders of diverse interests and backgrounds.
Jasanoff’s words resonate with a current issue: the debate over insurance coverage of contraceptives. Many of my Facebook friends have posted responses to this photo, citing the injustice that not a single woman was able to testify to Congressional committee on this issue of contraceptive coverage and religion. The online commentary is very much along the lines of “what is this, 1950?” At a time where women do have expertise in areas such as law, science, and religion, they are still not allowed in front of the curtain.
Stephen Hilgartner, Scienceon Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama (Stanford, 2000).
Kathy Wilson Peacock, GlobalIssues in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010).