February 18, 2012

Science on stage: experts and diversity (or lack thereof)

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.

Works referenced:
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).


  1. I want to push you a little further on this.

    Is the problem that expert panels do not represent our diverse population? Or is the problem that expert panels 'stage manage' scientific advice to stifle actual public debate?

    And if it is the former, is the problem that unrepresentative panels give bad advice, or that they reify the idea that white men are more trustworthy than other experts?

    1. Michael, I think the answer is both, which is why I (and others, such as Wilsdon and Willis) are calling for more upstream engagement of more diverse stakeholders. In See-Through Science, W&W ask,
      "Why this technology? Why not another? Who needs it? Who is controlling it? Who benefits from it? Can
      they be trusted? What will it mean for me and my family? Will it improve the environment? What will
      it mean for people in the developing world? The challenge — and opportunity — for upstream
      public engagement is to force some of these questions back onto the negotiating table, and
      to do so at a point when they are still able to influence the trajectories of scientific and technological development"

      In terms of agriculture, there has been a huge push for "participatory research." And looking at organic certification, as I explained last week, the New Zealand system was much more bottom-up in including diverse stakeholders from farmers to non-profits to corporations. Then there's the CGIAR network, which despite using a lot of participatory rhetoric, is still very top down (see my review of Brooks 2011 here: http://www.shapingsciencepolicy.com/2012/01/sts-perspectives-on-green-revolution.html

  2. As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts, Marci! I was particularly struck by your reference to impression management. I am actually dealing with a doggedly annoying problem: when a scientist makes a claim, how is it possible that the claim is then interpreted as "exaggerative" or not? This has some interesting consequences. Primarily, it undermines the idea that a scientific claim can either be "true" or "false" since it opens the claim up to a spectrum of possible interpretations. As a result, does the scienticity of the claim get put into jeopardy. In practice, it appears that scientists only become aware of the "exaggerative-ness" of their claim within a socio-political setting, thus bringing into play your idea of impression management (i.e. maybe when scientists understand how their claims are interpreted can they begin to negotiate between the meanings attributed to the claim, and the data used to make the claim in the first place). Thus, impression management. This could just be philosphical and semantic babble, but I seem to only be saying that there is a distinction between the data, and what goes into the interpretation or meaning of the data. If impression management can be applied to science, doesn't that open up a Pandora's Box of consequences for the usefulness and meaning of science in our society?

    1. Hi Gabe- well thanks for reading! Your description definitely resonates with what I know about climate science, and especially the "spectacle" of testifying for congress. I like Roger Pielke Jr's analysis here: http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2011/04/practical-advice-for-experts-who.html

      I don't think it open's Pandora's box, but I think that we do need a new way to conceptual science's role in politics that's not, "science says this, government should do this."

  3. Another interesting and related article: Matthew Nisbet on why climate scientists should be less angry: http://bigthink.com/ideas/42563


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