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Are science and democracy mutually exclusive?

ACFAS debate looks at growing power of citizens in influencing research.

By JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | SEP 19 2011

Traditionally, citizens were rarely given the chance to influence the direction of research. However, it seems that this is changing and that a growing number of citizens want to make their voices heard. The question is, who does knowledge belong to?

That was the key issue raised at a recent debate, hosted jointly by the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas) and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Montréal. Structured around the thinking of Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, professor of history and philosophy of science at Université Paris-Ouest, the discussion explored the tension that often exists between science and society.

“Knowledge belongs to no one,” said Dr. Bensaude-Vincent, author of La science contre l’opinion: histoire d’un divorce. “When I share my knowledge, I don’t give it up, but rather increase the chances that it will grow.”

This sharing isn’t limited to disseminating knowledge. If that were the case, the arrival of Wikipedia would have been enough to bridge the gap between society and science. Rather, knowledge-sharing implies that both citizens and scientists possess knowledge and that the sharing is mutual. “The professionalization of science in the 19th century created a gap between a scientific elite, supposedly the only legitimate holders of knowledge, and the general public, perceived as ignorant, impressionable and irrational,” continued Dr. Bensaude-Vincent.

But this knowledge monopoly has now been cast into doubt, particularly following certain scandals. “After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, French scientists tried to reassure the population by saying that the radioactive cloud had mysteriously dissipated at the French border. And more recently, we were told that the Japanese catastrophe could never happen in France because we know how to use nuclear power safely. But people are not fooled.”

The public is becoming increasingly militant and ready to play an active political role in the field of science. In France, concerns about nuclear power have sparked the creation of the Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendante sur la Radioactivité, which provides a second opinion on radioactivity readings. In the United States, AIDS associations are getting involved to influence the direction and agenda of research programs. In Europe, citizens can be named “stakeholders” and as such be consulted for the drafting of the European Union’s scientific directives. Simply put, citizens are no longer accepting a passive role.

Panelist Marc-André Sirard, researcher and professor of reproductive biology at Université Laval, pointed out that scientists are also citizens. He said that citizens, much like private companies, are usually in a hurry and results-oriented, which leads to shorter timelines and more constraints for researchers. As a result, fundamental research could be neglected in favour of results-driven research.

Yves Gingras, professor of history and sociology of science at Université du Québec à Montréal, noted that this was the very kind of reversal that philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville had feared. “According to de Tocqueville, democracy was going to lead to the development of applied science to the detriment of ‘aristocratic’ science – in other words, fundamental research. It will be up to governments to support fundamental research.” Paradoxically, he said, the public would push science in the same direction as private business, toward applied research.

And what about the researcher’s freedom? “The freedom of scientists can no longer be taken for granted,” maintained Dr. Bensaude-Vincent. “What’s clear today is that researchers are no longer isolated from the social issues of the times. Their independence is no longer what it was.”

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