Construction of what should have been the largest particle accelerator in the world, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), was abruptly interrupted in 1993. It was the biggest failure in particle physics in America in recent history. Numerous reasons were put forward to explain why the Clinton administration pulled the plug on SSC. We show in this work that public communication and the contemporary structure of technoscience were central elements in the project’s failure. By means of in depth discourse analysis in such case study, we make a preliminary map of the interesting reconfiguration that technoscience is passing through since the end of Cold War and the emergence of immaterial economy. This reconfiguration implies enhanced roles played by communication and multiplied interactions between scientists and other social actors. Comparing the strategic discourse constructed by particle physicists to ask for more money for SSC and the discourse used by biologists to legitimate the Human Genome Project, we can see some relevant differences which may have contributed for the very different fate of the two expensive and scientifically important projects. While the leaders of the HGP seemed to be conscious of the need for ample debate and public communication (with the "lay public", NGOs, policy makers, industry, etc), the physicists thought that the principal actors to communicate with were the Congress and some individual politicians. In contemporary technoscience, public communication of science and technology means something different than in the 1950s and 1960s. It means not only popularization, literacy and transmission, but also dialogue and negotiation. It means communicating not only with a "lay public" or negotiating with policy makers and lobbyists, but interacting with a complex network of actors in the civil society, discussing the meanings, the objectives, even the methods, of S&T. In contemporary technoscience, communication is a deep need, and assume deeper and more ample roles and consequences. The inability of American particle physicists to explain in clear and simple terms why so much public money was being dedicated to building an accelerator, and some wrong strategies and timings in the communication with other actors were important factors for the failure of the SSC project. An often mentioned turning point is the request to increase the budget for the project further, despite the fact it had already more than doubled since the project’s conception. Public opinion and parliamentary representatives did not truly comprehend the scientific reasons for building such a large-scale project. The idea of strategic, utilitarian research for instrumental purposes that could bring economic and public health benefits within a reasonable timeframe was rapidly capturing the attention of the decision makers. The Human Genome Project was rich with scientific purpose, but, thanks to a skilful marketing campaign overflowing with genetic information presented in an easy-to-comprehend, accessible fashion, promised also to identify genes "correlated" to social hardships such as alcoholism or deviant behaviour. It was much more appetizing than an elementary particle accelerator. Few members of Congress disputed the fact that SSC would have produced good science. But many believed it was not worth such a huge expenditure. The American particle physicists had lost the battle on the grounds of communication, intended as interaction with other scientific communities as well as with other important groups involved in negotiating project development. Though they produced arguments that were irreprehensible in scientific terms, the researchers involved in the SSC project were not able to produce a "socially robust" and "socially accountable" science, nor to stand the "enlarged peer review" process that characterises contemporary technoscience. They did not perceive that relevant decision in policy making and in the governance of science today are taken based on different inputs (not only coming from the "core set" of the experts, nor only linked to negotiation with politicians and lobbyists) and with the direct or indirect influence of multiple social actors.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Discourse collision
The failure of the Superconducting Super Collider and the reconfiguration of XXI century technoscience

Nico Pitrelli   International School for Advanced Studies

Yurij Castelfranchi   State University of Campinas

Construction of what should have been the largest particle accelerator in the world, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), was abruptly interrupted in 1993. It was the biggest failure in particle physics in America in recent history. Numerous reasons were put forward to explain why the Clinton administration pulled the plug on SSC. We show in this work that public communication and the contemporary structure of technoscience were central elements in the project’s failure. By means of in depth discourse analysis in such case study, we make a preliminary map of the interesting reconfiguration that technoscience is passing through since the end of Cold War and the emergence of immaterial economy. This reconfiguration implies enhanced roles played by communication and multiplied interactions between scientists and other social actors. Comparing the strategic discourse constructed by particle physicists to ask for more money for SSC and the discourse used by biologists to legitimate the Human Genome Project, we can see some relevant differences which may have contributed for the very different fate of the two expensive and scientifically important projects. While the leaders of the HGP seemed to be conscious of the need for ample debate and public communication (with the "lay public", NGOs, policy makers, industry, etc), the physicists thought that the principal actors to communicate with were the Congress and some individual politicians. In contemporary technoscience, public communication of science and technology means something different than in the 1950s and 1960s. It means not only popularization, literacy and transmission, but also dialogue and negotiation. It means communicating not only with a "lay public" or negotiating with policy makers and lobbyists, but interacting with a complex network of actors in the civil society, discussing the meanings, the objectives, even the methods, of S&T. In contemporary technoscience, communication is a deep need, and assume deeper and more ample roles and consequences. The inability of American particle physicists to explain in clear and simple terms why so much public money was being dedicated to building an accelerator, and some wrong strategies and timings in the communication with other actors were important factors for the failure of the SSC project. An often mentioned turning point is the request to increase the budget for the project further, despite the fact it had already more than doubled since the project’s conception. Public opinion and parliamentary representatives did not truly comprehend the scientific reasons for building such a large-scale project. The idea of strategic, utilitarian research for instrumental purposes that could bring economic and public health benefits within a reasonable timeframe was rapidly capturing the attention of the decision makers. The Human Genome Project was rich with scientific purpose, but, thanks to a skilful marketing campaign overflowing with genetic information presented in an easy-to-comprehend, accessible fashion, promised also to identify genes "correlated" to social hardships such as alcoholism or deviant behaviour. It was much more appetizing than an elementary particle accelerator. Few members of Congress disputed the fact that SSC would have produced good science. But many believed it was not worth such a huge expenditure. The American particle physicists had lost the battle on the grounds of communication, intended as interaction with other scientific communities as well as with other important groups involved in negotiating project development. Though they produced arguments that were irreprehensible in scientific terms, the researchers involved in the SSC project were not able to produce a "socially robust" and "socially accountable" science, nor to stand the "enlarged peer review" process that characterises contemporary technoscience. They did not perceive that relevant decision in policy making and in the governance of science today are taken based on different inputs (not only coming from the "core set" of the experts, nor only linked to negotiation with politicians and lobbyists) and with the direct or indirect influence of multiple social actors.

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

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