Is science amoral and apolitical, or should it be the subject of political and social debates? The former vision is what appears to guide science in Canada. Canadian and Québec science policies have been adopted with no parliamentary debate, as if self-evident, a situation that has to change, according to a group called the Association science et bien commun.
Founded in July 2011 by a group of Quebec researchers and students, the association’s mission is to encourage the involvement of citizens – researchers and non-researchers alike – in the collective writing of the broad strokes of a science policy that reflects their values and concerns. Their Internet project “La science que nous voulons” (the science we want) is intended to gather ideas and opinions from the public. The group took advantage of a recent session at the Acfas conference in Montreal to discuss the project’s main issues and to show a video of some of the contributions already gathered.
How should citizens be involved?
The idea of democratizing science is hardly a new one. But it’s important to know exactly what is meant by it. According to Mélissa Lieutenant-Gosselin, a doctoral candidate in the department of information and communication at Université Laval, there are two main visions of citizen involvement in science.
The first involves the transfer of knowledge developed by scientists to the public, through popularization or mechanisms for access to scientific information. That’s no small task, according to a spokesperson from the Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec. “Researchers don’t have the reflex of communicating regularly beyond their own circles,” he says. “It’s often at the bottom of their to-do list.”
For Jean-Marc Fontan, a sociology researcher at Université du Québec à Montréal, this attitude reveals a failure to understand the nature of research. “My research is the result of life in society, which I bring my expertise to,” he says. “It is never a purely individual construction.”
The second vision of public involvement in science is much less unilateral and revolves around citizen contributions to science, i.e., their involvement in debates about the direction of research, applications or ethical issues. This vision of citizen science is actually a “repoliticization” of science, which would become part of the democratic process. Public debate, the creation of decision-making or advisory bodies that include citizens, the presence of citizens in laboratories – there is no shortage of ideas among proponents of democratizing science.
Utopia or nightmare?
Presented by its advocates as the normal democratization of scientific activity that has a major impact on people’s day-to-day lives, many researchers see this openness as a nightmare, fearing that they would lose their autonomy and be told what to do by citizens who have their own convictions and interests. “There is the risk that this openness would be exploited by policymakers and even by businesses,” says Jean Bernatchez, political scientist and education researcher at Université du Québec à Rimouski.
Florence Piron, associate professor in the department of information and communication at Université Laval, believes that this fear is anchored in a vision of an amoral and apolitical science that comes straight out of the 17th century. At that time, the idea was to place science out of reach of centuries-old religious powers, which often looked askance at certain scientific initiatives. According to Dr. Piron, it’s an outdated vision to which she opposes an ethic of “fellow citizenship” in which the researcher, who is also a citizen, would get involved in debates about the direction of scientific ethics.
So the question is raised: Has the time come for citizen science?
As a scientist, I agree that it would be good to have better public awareness and understanding of the nature, methods, assessement, and results of scientific research. I think almost all scientists would welcome that type of positive development. The problem, however, is that some members of the public have strong views about scientific research, but very little actual knowledge of science and the scientific issues they may feel strongly about (for reasons that have nothing to do with science). So, sure, in general, it would be nice to have some increased level of public awareness and interest, but that would also assume a much higher level of general scientific literacy on the part of many members of the public.