Can science studies save the world?

August 1, 1997

Jon Turney asks whether an emerging discipline linking law, science and politics can answer complex questions about the changing social and natural worlds

An overheating planet, shedding species at an alarming rate, places new demands on science, politics and the law. We look to science to tell us what needs doing, politics for agreement on how to do it, and the law to find ways of enforcing the agreement. As new global problems test old institutions, the resulting stresses and strains will affect all our futures.

This shifting complex of negotiations about knowledge and policy on global change looks set to be the most demanding topic yet for the emerging field of science and technology studies. Sheila Jasanoff, America's most prominent scholar on law and science, is likely to play an important part in analysing how social and natural knowledge come together in new ways to create action for environmental protection.

Over the next few years, Professor Jasanoff, who heads the department of science and technology studies at Cornell University, will be comparing the operation of four new-style international treaties on climate change, ozone depletion, endangered species and biodiversity. They represent the most hopeful fruits of our collective effort to define what we may be doing to the globe, monitor the effects and try to curb the worst consequences.

The treaties are partly, as she puts it, the result of a new international scientific consciousness. "In the environmental arena in particular, there is a body of knowledge emerging that is global knowledge, in both literal senses. It is supposed to be shared by people around the globe, and it is about the globe, about how our planet works."

So what is new? Is not the hallmark of science that it generates knowledge that is true throughout the world - throughout the universe for that matter? Not really, says Jasanoff. The kind of science she has studied has always been deeply enmeshed in local contexts. It is not just that the scientific basis of some problem may be controversial, though that is surely the case with global warming. It is also a constant feature of what might be called regulatory science that the same facts mean different things to different people.

What that means first became apparent to Jasanoff in environmental science, which she encountered after the first wave of US environmental legislation in the early 1970s. She had just finished law school, after a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a PhD in linguistics at Harvard. "I was interested in historical linguistics, which I think was essentially because I've always been interested in texts and problem-solving." But it was not the fashion in the field and, having married a fellow historical linguist, she decided to retrain.

The new statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act became new texts to interpret, although strictly for advice to clients. "The legal profession is extraordinarily good at drawing its boundaries so that it's not ever thinking about the larger social and political process in which it's embedded," Jasanoff says.

The opportunity to think about those processes came with a move to Cornell, where she was quickly drawn into a collaboration with two political scientists in a comparative study of regulation of toxic chemicals. The risks they posed were a matter for science, but the response was not. "One of the intellectually formative things in my life was the discovery that European countries assess the risks of carcinogens so differently from Americans - so 'the same science' was having different effects in different political cultures".

This work, which led to a co-authored book, Controlling Chemicals and a monograph, Risk Management and Political Culture, made it easier to see the same processes at work in a single country. By the early 1980s, environmental agencies in the US were under attack from the Reagan administration. One expression of these new pressures was the controversy over who validated the agencies' science. It became apparent that "they were all saying peer review, but they were all referring to different people as peers".

This dovetailed with work she had not known before in social studies of science, looking at how boundaries are drawn between acceptable science and the rest. How these boundaries are set is always problematic, especially when science engages with other kinds of search for truth, like legal investigation. In her address at a recent seminar on science and law at University College London, Jasanoff cited the tangled history of American litigation about ill-effects of silicone breast implants to show the kind of conflicts which recur. The latest position is that a high-powered review panel, chaired by a judge, is deliberating on a report intended to weigh all the evidence. But it had to be preceded by an advisory panel that vetted prospective members of the review panel. If the cases pending are ever resolved, will scientific knowledge determine the legal verdict, or the verdict determine what is science?

That question (mine, not hers) fits the metaphor she offers to bypass the current dispute about scientific knowledge between realists and constructivists. She speaks of "coproduction" of knowledge, which appeals because "it gets away from the 'it's all society, stupid', or 'it's all science, stupid', types of formulations". She concedes that exactly what this means remains to be worked out, but offers an example to show how it might go, and what is distinctive about science studies. Rape trauma syndrome cropped up several times during the seminar, and she agrees with the suggestion that syndromes of this kind most often start in the US. Some make it to Europe, some do not.

A perfect topic, then, for an inquiry into science as a cultural production of a particular kind. "Just the idea that syndromes originate in America is politically an extraordinarily interesting idea. Nobody in political science is dealing with this. Nobody in sociology is dealing with this. It is a quintessential kind of problem that is for science studies to solve".

How, then? According to Jasanoff: "The way that a coproductionist view of the world would get to it would be to say, first of all, let's look at what these things are and what they do, then make a serious attempt to link them to wider forms of political movements and where their authority comes from in different systems."

What is needed, in other words, is a detailed mapping of interests, evidence, expertise and effects, to understand why scientific or medical data produces one outcome in one country, but a different outcome somewhere else. From this point of view, trust, credibility and legitimacy are as important in establishing the authority of knowledge as political action.

When it comes to global problems, the puzzles may be deeper, but the approach will be similar. If there come to be agreed scientific and regulatory standards for, say, reducing global warming, how will the trick be done?

"My work has been about how knowledge finds, or acquires and holds legitimacy in particular social and political contexts. Global knowledge, almost by definition, is cut loose from all of that history of making legitimacy."

But perhaps that simply means that, somehow, it must be linked to global political interests - not merely local ones. That is certainly Jasanoff's supposition. "I want to take ideas of coproduction - that say when we solve problems of natural order we're concurrently solving problems about social order - and my starting position is that with global environmental stuff, we have a place where people seem to be solving problems about the natural order: what is global nature like? And yet it's unclear what social problems are being dealt with."

One clue to what has changed with the new environmental agreements is that global inequalities seem to be taken more seriously than they were ten or 15 years ago. Ideas about a new international economic order were promoted by developing countries then, but made little impact. Now the story is different. "Suddenly, environmental equity, which is not so different, has much more political salience". Thinking about what is happening in the natural world has shifted, making certain claims about what should happen in the social world more plausible.

This is all tentative, but indicates how the work may go. "That's a kind of hypothesis - I don't know how to write about that. What I do observe is that equity talk failed at the international table around environmental issues - notably failed, in the law of the sea - but it is gaining some purchase, and is causing changes in methodology in measuring greenhouse gas emissions, so it's having bite. So why?" Jasanoff asks.

What is certain is that science has not simply persuaded the rich and powerful that global policy agreements have to take other interests into account. Somehow the controversies among scientists over climate change have become inseparable from political debates over what kind of world we want to live in. It is the complexities of the links between those debates that will keep Jasanoff and her colleagues busy beyond the millennium.

Jon Turney teaches science communication, University College London. Sheila Jasanoff's most recent book is Science at the Bar (Harvard University Press, 1995).

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