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Blogging from France: science and public debate

August 24, 2010

ASU faculty members and affiliates are meeting with French officials and scholars this week to develop new ways to foster better relationships between science and the public, and they will be sharing it with us in the blogosphere.

The stakes and outcomes of scientific activities have become the subject of increased public attention around the globe.

The social effects of science, the emergence of new technological products, the financing of scientific research as a focus of public policies – all contribute to turning the debate on science into a topic of major re­levance for contemporary democracies. Science and the technolo­gical objects that populate our daily lives have brought about stron­ger and stronger public controversies, such as the criticisms of the IPCC and its reports, and the uncertain­ties of health impacts of cell phones, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and food, and pesticides.

For example, the French government attempted an experiment from October 2009 to February of this year. Arguing that public input was needed to help shape the direction of nanotechnology in the country, the National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) decided to organize a series of 17 local public discussions around the country, from Strasbourg to Orleans.

The program started reasonably calmly, but as the fall turned to winter, environmental and civil society organizations increasingly raised their discontent with the program by sending protesters to the events. When the debates reached Marseilles, the protest was so overwhelming that some of the debates were cancelled. While the French government was attempting to give the people a voice, the protestors believed that all of the important decisions about nanotechnology had already been made and the public debates were simply window dressing.

Needless to say, the series of events troubled the French government. With all of the discussions about nanotechnology and its social and environmental impacts, there had not been a visible outcry against nano anywhere in the world. The protests reminded many of the social movements against GMOs, a series of events that few public officials or scientists want to repeat.

Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) is collaborating with the Institut des Hautes Études pour la Science et la Technologie (IHEST) in France at its European Summer School, “Which Place of Science in the Public Debate?” at Saline Royale d’Arc et Senans, August 25-29. Philosophers, political and social scientists, historians and stakeholders are gathering to precisely examine the place of science in the debates that unfold in the public sphere. What types of debates go public? Along which lines? Who is in­volved? By engaging with the general and nonetheless too often taken for granted notions of ‘debate’ and ‘public sphere’, the sum­mer school is exploring how they fit into the more specific topic of science-society relationships. 

CSPO faculty members Dan Sarewitz and Jamey Wetmore, and CSPO affiliate Mark Brown from California State University, Sacramento, have been invited to share CSPO’s work in the area of science and society.  Comparative international analyses will be one of the high points of the summer school and IHEST is looking to its collaboration with CSPO to be of particular benefit in this area.

Wetmore and Brown will be blogging daily from France, with their reactions and insights on ideas being explored at the summer school and the dynamic of the sessions. All readers are invited to post comments and join the conversation.  Their posts will be simultaneously available on CSPO’s blog “Soapbox” and on the IHEST blog.  If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of their posts, you can subscribe to Soapbox here and receive an e-mail alert when there is a post, or you can subscribe to the RSS feed here.

About CSPO

The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University is an interdisciplinary intellectual network aimed at enhancing the contribution of science and technology to society's pursuit of equality, justice, freedom and overall quality of life.  CSPO creates knowledge and methods, educates students, cultivates public discourse and fosters policies to help decision makers and institutions grapple with the immense power and importance of science and technology as society charts a course for the future. 

CSPO’s unique and productive synthesis of theoretical, empirical and problem-oriented research and tool development is driven by three guiding ideas: desired outcomes can drive science; the value in society of new knowledge is determined by how it is used, and by whom; and the definition of the problem helps determine the relevance of the research.

CSPO believes that politics and the ideas, institutions and the people behind them – and not science alone – determine the outcomes of science and technology in society.  In this view, science policy is vastly more complex – as well as more interesting and malleable – than merely setting a budget for scientific research and development.

For more information about the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, visit