Session 4 Biotechnology and controversies

21st June, 10.45-12.45, Chair: Cristina Palma Conceição, Room Polivalente

Public communication of (counter) science on the Internet. The case of Polish anti-GMO activists, Iwona Zielinska (Institute of Sociology and Philosophy, M. Grzegorzewska University, Warsaw, Poland)

Since the role and place of science has changed by highlighting the significance of knowledge for economy and society (knowledge-based economy, knowledge society), the distance between science and society has got shortened, redefining the relationship between the two. Additionally, various activists groups – NGOs, environmentalists and local grassroots organizations – express publicly concerns about new science and technology. They often point to experts’ inability to anticipate future consequences of present technology, or may in fact participate in the dynamics of science production by funding their own research and quoting their own experts, and thus producing a counter-scientific discourse.

The paper presents the results of an analysis of creation and flow of Polish anti-GMO discourse on the Internet. The tools offered by Web 2.0 – like social network websites (Facebook, Twitter), discussion boards, blogs and (to a lesser extend) websites, seem like a ‘natural environment’ for any activists contesting the mainstream science. This pose a real challenge to the mainstream scientific discourse, yet the role of various pressure groups in PCS and its use of the Internet communication has not been researched much.

Two main analytical tools were used to complete the research. An online software Netlitic ( to trace, collect and analyse a large amount of content on social network sites (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube), discussion boards and websites, and to observe the flow of information between the actors involved in communicating and promoting anti-GMO discourse. Atlas.ti was used to analyse a selected material more in-depth (Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis), with the use of discursive techniques, to look closer at the topics, arguments and evidence used by anti-GMO activists and the emotions attached to the issue.

The presentation seeks to address following questions: What are the main communication strategies used by anti-GMO activists to propagate they massage? How do they involve individuals in creating counter-scientific discourse? With what results? What scientific evidence do they use to legitimate their arguments? Who are the experts supporting their stance?  Do they get engaged in discussions with the proponents of mainstream scientific discourse on GMO? Is there a lesson the mainstream scientists can learn from anti-GMO activist in PCS? The results of the analysis will be set against public surveys regarding the attitudes and opinions on GMO to see if the topics and arguments of the anti-GMO activist are reflected somewhat in a wider society.


Civic Engagement for Transparency and Sustainable Technoscientific Future, Jawhar. C T (Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, India)

The role of the ‘public’ in enhancing the accountability and transparency in the institutions and practices of the sustainable governance of novel technologies such as biotechnology is well debated in academic and public domain. My study looks at the role of the public and the civic engagement in creating and maintaining transparency, accountability and empowerment among the different stockholders in the process of democratizing the practices of governance of biotechnology. This study looks at the formation of ‘hybrid forum’, which includes different actors, framings and interests, in the context of Bt Brinjal debate in India in last decades. In the analysis of the transparency, the forward mapping technique is most prominent, which looks at the role of the state institutions and regulatory frameworks, bureaucratic and technocratic set ups in understanding and engaging with technological artifacts and its regulation. On the other hand, I am using a backward mapping approach in understanding the question of transparency and a sustainable environmental and ecological practice with reference to novel technologies in agriculture especially biotechnology. The backward mapping demand a close look at the grassroots movements and actors.

How to map the sustainability challenges identified and acted upon by the different civic groups in connection with the Biotechnology is important methodological challenge I am addressing in this study. In the context of Bt brinjal debate, different civic groups such as scientist, policy analysts, technocrats, civil society groups, farmers unions, small and unorganized farming communities, independent research and advocacy groups, etc. framed and developed different indicators for a sustainable socio-technical and environmental system. In my field work in four different sites and groups, first, in the site of public consultation on Bt Brinjal which turn out in to a protest and pedagogical site with the involvement of different group, such as ati-GM activist, policy makers, farmers groups, technocrats, pro-GM advocacy groups etc. The second site, the People’s Biodiversity Meet where different grass root organizations, NGOs and independent group came together and debated different pathways to a sustainable future. The third site is Food Sovereignty Alliance Submit, where different adivasi, dalit, pastoralist, peasant and indigenous communities came together to reclaim their right over the agriculture and to sustain agricultural biodiversity. Four sites is National Seed Congress,   where different seed companies and different stakeholders came together to ‘discuss critical issues impacting the seed supply’ and to ‘recommend a set of suggested interventions in policies for developing sustainable and globally competitive self-reliance in seed sector’. These four sites address the question of sustainability and transparency in different ways. Addressing the dynamics of this debate and understanding the importance of transparency in the governance of techno science and its public is the main tread of investigation.


‘Agriculture Boon: When scientific progress is socially rejected-The BT-Brinjal (eggplant) case’, Ritika Chauhan (Dept. of communication, media and film, University of Calgary, Canada)

Agriculture biotechnology is highly controversial due to its public perception as risky (Bailey & Lappé, 2002; Frewer, 1999; McHughen, 2000; Shah, 2011; Weale, 2010). Various non-government organisations (NGOs) and social activists groups play a crucial role in dissemination of risk perception as they become delegates of knowledge about biotech applications to general public. On the other hand, scientists and economists who belong to expert groups suggest it as a granted solution to produce more food to mitigate current challenges of food crisis, thus assuring domestic food security and boosting economic prosperity through exports (Anderson, 2010; Lybbert & Sumner, 2012). These opposing views put serious political constraints on government for policy making. (Anderson, 2010). Under this influence, an urgent need of democratizing biotechnology through public participation is explicitly suggested (Alam, 2011; Durant, 1999; Legge & Durant, 2010)

Public participation often employs dialogue, deliberation and citizen engagement and is a defining concept of deliberative democracy theory. Various emerging technologies in 1980’s brought challenges in governance and policy making, thus encouraging explorations of participatory technology assessment (Einsiedel & O’Doherty, 2013). However, biotechnology implicates various institutions (such as WTO, FAO) and uses its own jargon. Therefore, there can be a serious flaw in adjusting biotechnology policies solely on quantitative research outcomes of public participation. In this context, more in depth qualitative analysis of ‘public perception of science’ is necessary. However, public perception of science is a causal phenomenon of how scientific research is communicated in society and how general knowledge of science is built through various platforms (such as media, scientific expos, debates etc.). In my research I argue that to understand this phenomenon, one focus is also required on the delivers of scientific information (scientists, social activists) rather than a biased focus on recipients (general public, farmers) which is predominant in social science research. Also, such information (I will call it ‘messages’) is often packaged with scientific discourses, such as ‘food security’ or ‘world hunger’ which form the strong motivation for scientific progress in agriculture and to deploy stronger position of science as a research field among society. The role of a discourse has been deemed important in previous theories such as one put forth by Michel Foucault who argued that power is closely connected to discourse because discourse contributes to what we understand about us and other subjects which contribute to knowledge building and truth in society. Therefore, performing analysis of specific scientific discourses in public and their effects can prove another stronger tool to understand science-public interface.

Research design: In technology development, stakeholders (such as scientists, social activists and government officials) become the ultimate delegators of technology analysis and disseminate messages to general public. It is thus crucial to examine their activity in context of technology design and development. Hence, I focus my research on particular public or stakeholders as these groups are rarely examined in literature (as opposed to general public). I have chosen the case of moratorium (indefinite hold until further investigation) on commercialization of BT-Brinjal (eggplant) in India, the first edible genetically modified crop to be commercialized that took place in 2010 under the influence of socio-political pressure of public, media and anti-GMO activists. It is one of the recent and most controversial demonstrations of challenges many countries face in public acceptance of new technologies in agriculture (Cohen & Paarlberg, 2004). A closer look on such controversial cases as this may be useful to shed light on more complex dynamics of public perception of scientific research and basis of acceptance or rejection of scientific research outcomes.

Alam, F. (2011). Scientific expertise in a representative democracy: Bt brinjal. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(35), 106-111.

Anderson, K. (2010). Economic impacts of policies affecting crop biotechnology and trade. New BIOTECHNOLOGY, 27(5), 558-564. doi: 10.1016/j.nbt.2010.05.012

Bailey, B., & Lappé, M. (2002). Engineering the farm: the social and ethical aspects of agricultural biotechnology. Washington: Island Press.

Cohen, J. I., & Paarlberg, R. (2004). Unlocking Crop Biotechnology in Developing Countries––A Report from the Field. World Development, 32(9), 1563-1577. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2004.05.003

Durant, J. (1999). Participatory technology assessment and the democratic model of the public understanding of science. Science and Public Policy, 26(5), 313-319. doi: 10.3152/147154399781782329

Einsiedel, E. F., & O’Doherty, K. (2013). Public engagement and emerging technologies. Vancouver, B.C: UBC Press.

Frewer, L. (1999). Risk Perception, Social Trust, and Public Participation in Strategic Decision Making: Implications for Emerging Technologies. Ambio, 28(6), 569-574.

Legge, J. S., & Durant, R. F. (2010). Public opinion, risk assessment, and biotechnology: Lessons from attitudes toward genetically modified foods in the European union. Review of Policy Research, 27(1), 59-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-1338.2009.00427.x

Lybbert, T. J., & Sumner, D. A. (2012). Agricultural technologies for climate change in developing countries: Policy options for innovation and technology diffusion. FOOD POLICY, 37(1), 114-123. doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2011.11.001

McHughen, A. (2000). Pandora’s picnic basket: the potential and hazards of genetically modified foods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shah, E. (2011). Science in the Risk Politics of Bt Brinjal. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(31), 31-37.

Weale, A. (2010). Ethical arguments relevant to the use of GM crops. New BIOTECHNOLOGY, 27(5), 582-587. doi: 10.1016/j.nbt.2010.08.013


Separating the wheat from the chaff? Publics affected from European’s crime and border control technologies, Nina Amelung (CES, University of Coimbra, Portugal)

Border control traditionally aims at securing state’s territorial integrity and autonomy and to protect a well-ordered society. More recently European border control regimes have become enforced with the help of technologies of collecting and exchanging biometric data across Europe for controlling the identity and mobility of different groups. Security professionals at the intersection of criminal policing, anti-terrorist policing, customs, immigration control, intelligence, biometric information technologies, forensic science are involved in socio-technical control practices which are not publically proposed, debated and democratically agreed and therefore tend to silence publics.

Two examples of transnational cooperation for fighting crime and control of “illegal migration” using biometric data such as DNA profiles and fingerprints are the recent regimes of Prüm in the area of criminal investigation and EURODAC in the area of asylum management. Both cases redefine categories of belonging within democratic societies. In that sense these technologies prescribe directly affected publics, marginalized non-citizens and stigmatized as “transnational suspects” or as “transnational illegal migrants”. But they also prescribe publics, democracies’ citizens claimed to benefit from increased internal security and societal integrity. Both cases link with normatively and morally ambivalent issue areas and provoke controversies along surveillance and privacy, societal protection rights versus individual rights, enlarging social discrimination versus solidarity, accountability and transparency. They differ with regards to how the material dimension, e.g. fingerprint data from “illegal migrants” and DNA-data from “transnational suspects”, shape the public involvement in these controversies. The paper asks how these crime and border control technologies create categories and hierarchies of affected publics, silence some and empower others, by analyzing the historical evolution of these two technologies and the related (public) controversies – shaped among others by politicians, police, forensic scientists, human rights groups, activists and citizens.

In the tradition of pragmatist accounts on material participation and on the democratic engagement with controversies the paper focuses on how issue articulation co-produces definitions of the issue and affected publics. A specific focus will be how different notions of the ‘affected public’ are configured. For this purpose the paper takes methodological inspiration from ANT’s controversy studies and will present two ‘cartographies of controversies’ by identifying and representing different viewpoints and statements linked to a controversy and materialized in literature and documents. The paper analyzes a set of documents from the science-policy interfaces (such as scientific articles and books, think tank publications, policy reports, green papers, etc.) from academic scholars (such as biologists, legal medicine/forensic geneticists, legal scholars, social scientists, anthropologists, etc.), policy institutions, think tanks and NGOs.

The paper contributes with a critical reflection about what it means to move the debate on material participation and the making of publics to the borders and boundaries of democracy by asking what affected publics are created by technologies of biometrical data exchange across Europe – fundaments of European’s crime and border control regimes.