Science, Policy, Expertise, and Public Participation

Nov 27, 2011 by Lydia Allen

In his article, “Science, Expertise, and the Democratization of the Decision-Making Process,” Michael Carolan argues for a reconceptualization of the normal science/ post-normal science way of thinking about science and policy and argues, instead, for a shift toward considering expertise from many perspectives.

I agree with this notion wholeheartedly.

One of the challenges for me this semester has been the fact that the so-called “science” we have often discussed (namely “post-normal” “science”) looks nothing like science to me. Doing a study isn’t science. Science is more rigorous than that. It involves peer review, replication of findings, and looking at research trends over time in a particular sub-field.

For this reason, I have felt concern about what our readings have had to say about public participation in science. However, I think there is something to say about expertise and public policy. I am very comfortable with the notion of people of differing expertises coming together to solve a problem in an interdisciplinary fashion. Please note that I have said that people must have expertise in order to participate.

In his article, Carolan notes that there are some people who lack expertise in a narrow area, but have expertise in another narrow area. He talks about how nuclear physicists were trying to help sheep farmers lessen the fallout impact after Chernobyl on their sheep farming. The physicists didn’t listen to the farmers’ expertise on sheep ecology, and as a result, the scientists weren’t able to make the maximally effective recommendations to the farmers for lessening the fallout impact.

In other words, the scientists had their expertise and the sheep farmers had their expertise, and working together, could have solved a problem better than working alone. I am all for this.

My problem with the notion of public participation in science policy comes from a suspicion that people without relevant expertise will derail the problem solving process. Worse, that people without relevant expertise will *purposely* derail the problem solving process because of an agenda. I find this unacceptable.

As such, I am weary about “democratic” participation in science.  Such participation (as I understand it) doesn’t require expertise. “One person, one vote” vets no one in the process. This is a problem because people without relevant expertise have nothing positive to contribute to the problem-solving process, so there needs to be a process by which they are weeded out, especially if some of these people have decidedly anti-scientific leanings.

Ahh, but who is going to do the weeding out? How do we decide relevant expertise? Yes, these are not easy questions to answer, I realize. I don’t think it changes the fact that there needs to be a vetting process in place if we are to consider public participation in science.

Going with the sheep example, what if a third party had thrown it’s hat into the problem-solving ring… say, an animal rights group that wants to put sheep farmers out of business? Does said group have expertise on sheep farming or nuclear fallout? Perhaps, but I contend likely not. Does said group have an agenda? Certainly.

One caveat to my discussion here: Again, I feel limited to talk about the difficult nuances of a topic like this, so I will try to deal with this by leaving the reader with a question:

If you think a vetting process is a good idea, do you have any suggestions as to how to go about it?

If you think a vetting process is a bad idea, could you explain why?

(I’m a fan of links, so please feel free to link me to articles, videos, etc. on the internet to drive your point home. Thanks!)


Carolan, Michael S. “Science, Expertise, and the Democratization of the Decision-Making Process.” Society and Natural Resources, 19:661–668