PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Communicating innovatory science - government, bureaucracy and the political paradigm

Arthur Brownlea  

1. Jean Elshtain believes "nothing is exempt from the political definition, direction and manipulation". Science communication into the arena of bureaucrats and politicians represents an inevitable step into political definition, direction and manipulation.

2. For politicians and bureaucrats science, especially innovative science, communicates an ISSUE to be managed more than a technical insight adding to KNOWLEDGE. For them, science communication is not a neutral disinterested process, but rather a political process designed to influence patterns of resource allocation and human behaviour, including decision-making.

3. For those who plan these things, communicating innovative science becomes an active transport process, recognising political gradients an administrative structures as parameters of communication outcomes. This is summarised as the POLITICAL PARADIGM.

4. The political paradigm, with regard to communicating innovatory science, has a number of internal hypotheses, all subject to challenge.

4.1 Administrative docking (or CONNECTION) is problematic. The department or branch for which the innovative science will become an issue of core business is not always clear e g genetic manipulation could have docked with any of three departments, namely health, environment or industry. It was located in Administrative sen/ices for politically pragmatic reasons.

4.2 Departmental rivalries or overlaps lead to plural framing of the issue(s); Each departmental framing states an interest in the issue(s) raised by the innovative science. This creates INTERCONNECTION, interconnection can facilitate, frustrate or flummox discourse and the transmission of ideas. Under the influence of differing political and public perceptions and pressures, different departments have used their mandates to get involved, framing the issue accordingly. For the Department of Industry, genetic manipulation could be framed, along with biotechnology, as a source of investment, trade growth and employment creation; for the Department of the Environment, genetic manipulation was a potential risk to environmental sustainability; for the Department of Health and the NHMRC, genetic manipulation was a therapy for debilitating diseases of genetic origin. Ad there were others interested eg the National Food Authority, who could have framed genetic manipulation as a food additive that needed labeling.

Proponent interest or lobby groups also engage in rival framing to convey a perspective that helps their cause eg RCD is framed as a simple agricultural an veterinary chemical for registration and use to bypass the block on a national release.

Opponent lobbyists frame the same virus as a threat to native species, or animal cruelty.
So, in a political paradigm, framing is used to communicate, in paraphrased form, not . so much the content of the innovation but its meaning in an issues-oriented bureaucracy.

4.3 For bureaucrats, innovative science presages reform on some scale, and reform is a difficult process.

Difficulty is increased as the conceptual complexity of the innovative science increases. Failure to communicate this conceptual complexity may result in conflict and strained relationships between interest groups, government and proponents. Difficulty is increased, again, if the experimental procedures challenge value systems, and if uncertainty about the products poses threats to safety, well-being, environmental sustainability or perhaps are considered to be unnecessary. The link between scientific content and the issues is also problematic. Paraphrased content may result in some distortion at worst or simply a loss of information at best. Under these circumstances, dispute, dislocation and complaint are more likely to emerge. Finally, difficulty could come about If the procedural arrangements for assessing impacts and managing risks and providing advice on directions and ongoing public liaison are not clear.

In addition, to the advice provided through the science communication they will undertake their own meta-analysis of the issues, subsequently, they will advance particular theories of impact, interpret the responses of interest groups (eg. the results of the call for comments of the RCD Release) and express views on underlying motivations behind interest groups, including the scientists themselves (eg the fear of human infection from RCD releases when the USA researchers were at risk of losing their funding).

Therefore, the way innovative science is communicated into bureaucracy will influence the way bureaucrats develop and apply their own political definitions, directions and manipulations. Some definition of the public interest with respect to the innovative science will emerge. Science communication, within the political paradigm, must be interpretable against public interest safeguards. There may be a need to regulate activities. Choice ranges from self-regulation, industry regulation or general regulation. From these they will develop their concepts of reform, the models they will use to mange it, and the practical arrangement for administering appropriate regulatory procedures.

4.4 The framing activities in innovative science communication for different bureaucratic groups is further mirrored in developing different frames for the separate states and their political contexts. This is a challenge if a nationally coherent and consistent approach to further developments is desired. GMACs experience is illuminating.

4.5 The more challenging the innovative science, the more procedurally just the consultative and decision-making activities must be if ongoing subversion is to be avoided and informed acceptance of decisions is the nurtured.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.