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Public Communication of Science and Technology


Social representations of science at the commission hearings into the decline of sockeye salmon in British Columbia, Canada
Relying on good science or indulging in speculation?

Michelle Riedlinger  

This study draws on the theory of social representations (Moscovici, 1961/2008; Moscovici, 2001; Jovchelovitch, 2006; Wagner and Haynes, 2005) and corpus-supported methods of analysis to examine the testimonies of researchers and invested others (e.g. resource managers and environmental groups) at the 2011-2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, BC. An examination of participants' testimonies associated with risks to sockeye salmon populations revealed that participants both mobilise and resist particular common sense research frames. For example, government research managers attributed a lack of ecosystems science to the complexity of the science and a lack of adequate resourcing. Conservation representatives resisted these common sense framings and instead appealed to frames associated with a lack of Indigenous community engagement and the "politicisation" of science. Science communication was also a key concern. Some participants considered science communication efforts valuable for translating knowledge, improving transparency and being accountable, while other participants expressed concern with creating public fear and interference in current salmon management efforts. Researchers stating a commitment to furthering scientific knowledge made sense of preliminary research findings related to salmon anaemia virus genetics in terms of the precautionary principle and the need for public communication. In contrast, researchers stating a commitment to environmental management support for the salmon industries spoke about the same research findings in terms of their concerns with "speculative science" and the need to manage public concern. Common sense representations supported attempts to shape (and exclude) participation in public discussions of salmon risks and involvement in risk-related research. This project contributes to science and society risk research and the mobilisation of knowledge related to social inclusion and political engagement. Researchers could consider commission hearing testimonies and their uptake in recommendation reports as useful data sources for uncovering important socio-psychological dimensions of science communication.

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