Lab Work Goes Social, and Vice Versa: Strategising Public Engagement Processes

Commentary on: “What Happens in the Lab Does Not Stay in the Lab: Applying Midstream Modulation to Enhance Critical Reflection in the Laboratory”

Abstract

Midstream modulation is a form of public engagement with science which benefits from strategic application of science and technology studies (STS) insights accumulated over nearly 20 years. These have been developed from STS researchers’ involvement in practical engagement processes and research with scientists, science funders, policy and other public stakeholders. The strategic aim of this specific method, to develop what is termed second-order reflexivity amongst scientist-technologists, builds upon and advances earlier more general STS work. However this method is focused and structured so as to help generate such reflexivity—over the ‘upstream’ questions which have been identified in other STS research as important public issues for scientific research, development and innovation—amongst practising scientists-technologists in their specialist contexts (public or private, in principle). This is a different focus from virtually all such previous work, and offers novel opportunities for those key broader issues to be opened up. The further development of these promising results depends on some important conditions such as identifying and engaging research funders and other stakeholders like affected publics in similar exercises. Implementing these conditions could connect the productive impacts of midstream modulation with wider public engagement work, including with ‘uninvited’ public engagement with science. It would also generate broader institutional and political changes in the larger networks of institutional actors which constitute contemporary technoscientific innovation and governance processes. All of these various broader dimensions, far beyond the laboratory alone, need to be appropriately open, committed to democratic needs, and reflexive, for the aims of midstream modulation to be achieved, whilst allowing specialists to work as specialists.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    STS is not the only agent capable of inducing this further scientific reflection and potential ‘self-reorientation’ of science. Summarised below is an example, described in more detail elsewhere (Doubleday and Wynne 2011), of such a ‘reflexive’ public impact on science (UK plant sciences transgenics research). This reorientation was engendered not mainly by STS participation (though this did exist, in an interpretive public role) but by persistent and vigorous public controversy from about 1996 to 2004 that included direct action destroying publically funded scientific field-tests.

  2. 2.

    This term refers to the “upstream–downstream” language of varying public engagement with science exercises. As the author of this terminology as used in this context, I should note that this was a simple distinction between engagement processes which allowed citizen groups to engage in exchanges over the issues at the consequences, risks, or impacts stage, or at the earlier, more formative stages of the whole life-cycle of research→innovation→impacts. It was an avowedly schematic and crude term, to distinguish this downstream phase and its different agenda, from upstream where research is being conducted, with broad aims, and expectations and promises of downstream impacts. In contrast to those of the downstream phases, the salient upstream issues—often pointed to by publics involved in conventional public engagement processes—are more immediately about front-end purposes, priorities, imagined outcomes and alternative trajectories, than about assessing impacts or risks. Thus ‘midstream’ notionally lies in the middle of such phases; but since most innovation processes are nearly always upstream and downstream at the same time (for example, because ‘downstream’ impacts often lead to responses which initiate simultaneous new ‘upstream’ research, or at least, concerns and questions), midstream could also encompass ‘mixed-stream’ situations. When I introduced these ideas (e.g., Wynne 2002) I also recognised the obvious point that most science-derived innovation is invariably multi-stream. Midstream modulation is a useful elaboration of this whole approach, because it recognises the crucial distinction between ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ questions and issues, while avoiding the misunderstanding of these as mutually exclusive.

  3. 3.

    One of the unrecognised benefits for science and society of more vigorous and not top-down-orchestrated forms of public engagement with science is that the unnoticed inherent flexibility of science to respond to new signals—including new questions and concerns—can be brought into play. As a result, potentially new innovation trajectories and their associated social benefits can be generated by science. Practically-speaking, this involves deliberate experimental attempts to introduce new kinds of stakeholders to relevant areas of science, and to be open to resultant change in the sciences involved. For this point, see the report from Genome British Columbia (2011), on strategic integration of social sciences and humanities with genomics and related scientific research.

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Wynne, B. Lab Work Goes Social, and Vice Versa: Strategising Public Engagement Processes. Sci Eng Ethics 17, 791–800 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-011-9316-9

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Keywords

  • Midstream modulation
  • Upstream public engagement in science
  • Reflexivity
  • Governance of innovation
  • Institutional change