Social Challenges in Technical Decision-Making: Lessons from Social Controversies Concerning GM Crops

JIRCAS International Symposium Proceedings
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The modern world is becoming increasingly complex not only because of rapid progress in
science and technology but also due to the emergence and spread of multiple values. As a
consequence, demands for economic and physical security are gradually giving way to demands
based on other values such as freedom, self-expression and quality of life. This shift ? a turn
from ‘materialist’ to ‘postmaterialist’ values (Inglehart, 1997) ? has had a tremendous influence
across all spheres of our lives. Scientific endeavors related to agriculture are no exception. This
turn to postmaterialist values explains the shifting research agenda in agriculture. For instance,
when we look at the dominant research agenda in modern biotechnology relating to agriculture
and food, the area that I am most familiar with, the emphasis is now shifting from research on,
and development of,varieties with improved productivity to those with improved nutrition. This
shows the research agenda is moving away from a focus on the economic needs and benefits of
producers, toward an emphasis on appealing to consumers and the wider society. Indeed, the
Japanese government named nutritionally enhanced geneticially modified crops as one of four
strategic research items for the further development of modern biotechnology, along with other
traits such as disease resistant rice, drought tolerant genetically modified wheat, and genetically
modified rice for bioremediation (MAFF, 2008). Such a turn to postmaterialist values might also
explain shifts in our expectations regarding the role of science in society, by which science is
viewed as one of the tools available to us to help improve our quality of life, but not the only
available tool. Against these changes, the theme of this paper is to identify new social
challenges arising from such a transformation, particularly by shedding light on the public’s
involvement in determining the course of agricultural research and development. Simply stated,
the paper attempts to address the question: if we pre-suppose that greater involvement of the
public in scientific and technical matters is a good thing to pursue, what do we need to know
and how do we carry out the pursuit?
We can see the potential impact of increased public participation in scientific and technical
matters if we consider past instances when public opinion determined the fate of a certain
agricultural technology. When we consider social controversies concerning genetically modified
crops (GM crops), for instance, the public’s reaction to the technology has had a tremendous
influence upon the ways in which GM crops are used or not used. When we realize that to date
GM crops have not produced a single environmental disaster of the magnitude of Chernobyl or
Three Mile Island, and that no one has died from eating them, yet social controversies have resulted in several years of moratorium on approval of new GM crops in the EU (with no GM
crops in commercial use in Japan), we begin to see that scientific and technical solutions such as
dealing with bio- or food safety issues of GM crops alone will not suffice, but that social
dimensions play an important role as well.
In order to grasp the implications of the public’s involvement in scientific and technical
matters, the paper will introduce two different modes of relations between scientists and the
public. What I would call the “modes of relations” is an ideal type ? a conceptual device that
will sensitize our way of understanding our activities. Therefore, we will need to keep in mind
that reality does not necessarily fit neatly into these conceptual categories; there are always gray
areas. During the last decade or so, the public has been involved in scientific and technical
matters in a number of ways. At one end of the continuum lies a “conventional” form of public
participation such as public opinion surveys, public hearings, public comments on legislation
and so forth. At the other end of the continuum exists a new form of public participation
consisting of consensus conferences, citizens’ juries, citizens’ panels and others. When you
compare these two forms of public participation, the major difference is the way in which
information flows. The former presupposes a one-way flow ? from the scientists to the public,
while the latter posits a two-way information exchange, or dialogue between scientists and the
public. The underlying thinking of the first model is that decisions regarding technical issues
should be left in the hands of scientists, on the grounds that the public lacks the scientific and
technical knowledge and capability to make complex and technical decisions. In contrast, the
latter bases its argument on the proposition that scientific knowledge is not perfect and that the
public is not necessarily unreasonable in wishing to evaluate the impact of a certain technology
upon their lives. In other words, while the one-way flow of information does involve
communication between scientists and the public to some extent, the decisions are ultimately
made by experts, whereas two-way information exchanges granting some degree of authority to
the public in decision-making.
By applying these two models to the social controveries concerning GM crops in Japan, we
begin to see that the way in which the public relates to scientific and technical matters has
changed over time. The paper will draw on findings derived from an analysis of the discourse
surrounding GM crops in Japan. Our study has surveyed the contents of 1,121 Japaneses
newspaper articles identified with a key word search for “genetic engineering.” Prior to 1998,
when newspapers covered news about genetic engineering technologies in agriculture and food,
there was little mention of the public. However, in the period after 1998, the emphasis in the
stories shifted to issues reflecting concerns raised by and for the public. In and around 2000, the
emphasis of the stories shifted again in ways that suggest the importance of the public’s input
into public policy decision-making (Yamaguchi and Suda forthcoming). In addition, public
opinion surveys done in Japan on the public’s participation in decision-making related to
scientific and technical matters also show a similar trend. Results from surveys compiled by the
Cabinet Office in 2004 and by Mitsubishi Research Institute in 2005 indicate that the majority of Japanese nationals feel that the public has the right and responsibility to be involved in
scientific decision-making from the beginning to the end of research and development.
Analysis of the data suggests that the dominant thinking in contemporary society is shifting
toward involving the public in decisions on technical matters. It is clear that the public feels
strongly about the importance not only of participation in decision-making processes involving
issues related to science and technology but also of obtaining authority to some degree to decide
which types of technologies society will adopt. Given such a social trend, it is important that we
devise methods that facilitate the public’s participation in scientific and technical decisions. To
begin, we need to have a clearer picture of the benefits and drawbacks of various public
participation methods. Drawing on the matrix developed by Rowe and Frewer (2000), the paper
shows the strengths and weaknesses of five different public participation techniques in light of
four criteria: representativeness, independence, transparency, and early involvement.
The paper concludes that now the dominant discourse has shifted and the public feels
strongly about the right to participate in decision-making procesess, and that it will be useful to
compile examples of projects involving various participation methods to evaluate their
effectiveness empirically so as to a gain better understanding of which methods to use in which

Date of issued
Creator Tomiko Yamaguchi


technical decision-making

the public

modes of relations

Publisher Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences
Available Online
Issue 2009
spage 126
epage 132
Rights Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences
Language eng

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