Nuclear, nanotechnology, GMOs, mobile phones… The decisions related to the techno-scientific field are taken without consultation with civil society and they (very) often influenced by industry.
Why ? Because the dominant way of thinking is that these debates are reserved for experts and so civil society is hardly consulted, if at all. But debates among experts are often organized in such a way that they reflect the opinion of those you have an interest in putting a new technology on the market.
Yet European civil society is ripe and ready for a discussion with these experts on even terms, leading them to more “systemic” terrain. It is inciting them to take their heads of out the laboratories and accounting ledgers to take notice of the multiple social repercussions of these technologies. To be fully operational in its role as a counter-balance of expertise, civil society needs to lean on civic information watchdogs run by people who are concerned about the public good but are not in league with industry.
What is a civic watchdog ?
It is a structure, composed of independent scientific professionals and/or citizens with a critical attitude. The end-goal is to help the public react in line with the general interest (and therefore, a priori, the interest of the planet) to proposals about technology. With or without employees, and not subject to the lobbies of financiers or business, the principal mission of civic watchdogs is to produce and diffuse analyzed and contextualized information which the greater public would generally not be exposed to (or which is readily available but lacks analysis). With the mere circulation of this information, the objective is to begin a debate and occasionally to advocate a particular position on a given theme.
Vulgar scientific journals certainly exist. But what guarantee to they offer on their ability to anticipate the consequences of technical decisions on society and the environment. And what is the guarantee of their independence ?
The place of civic watchdogs in decision-making
These information watchdogs are situated upstream in the decision making process : in effect, their role is to enlighten citizens about the consequences of a given technical decision. This choice will be made according to a cost/benefit analysis of the impact on society as a whole. Nonetheless, to establish a basis for this analysis, we must first ensure that the costs and the benefits are of the same nature. This means that if the benefits go to individuals while the costs are borne by a larger group, the relationship between them is not calculable. It is therefore important to calculate the relationships by establishing numerous value registers as well as a way of determining equivalencies between them.
The information watchdogs therefore need to work BEFORE a decision is made, and even before the citizens’ conferences. But they also need to work AFTER, in order to evaluate the impacts of these technical decisions and to ring the alarm bells if necessary and support any necessary modifications.
The role of the European Union vis-à-vis citizen watchdogs
In theory, the European Union would like to favour civic participation and therefore civil society as a whole. Its “Sciences in Society” program notably supported, if timidly, the development of “Science Shops.” In the same spirit, the Union could officially support the emergence of pools of citizens preoccupied with a given techno-scientific issue, and at the same time furnish them with the mean of working in the organigram of the decision-making process : that of “providers of civic counter-expertise,” advising on policies before decisions have been made.
An example in France : inf’OGM, a citizen information watchdog critical of GMOs
For 16 years, Inf’OGM provided a francophone information service about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and seeds, independent of lobby groups and political parties. Inf’OGM follows international affairs, compares information, researches reliable sources, and translates in order to provide regular, verified, concise and well-referenced information for all GMO issues in language accessible even to non-experts. In order to produce this information on a daily basis, Inf’OGM is in direct contact with local and international networks of relevant actors (elected officials, associations, jurists, researchers).
Inf’OGM has also become a reference for a number of GMO-related actors through providing scientific information, as well as economic and legal advice so that social, environmental and health consequences of the use of genetically modified plants. Notably, Inf’OGM was heard by a Parliamentary commission, participated ahead of amendments to GMO laws in 2008 which took place in front of local elected officials. Other citizen watchdogs on other technical themes were developed in France with means much smaller than their ambitions, but who nonetheless took on work in the “public interest” like nuclear energy, mobile phones, nanotechnology, pesticides, waste…