The Fifth Branch: Description, prescription, explanation

Notes from 9 Feb. 1993

1.  In The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (Harvard UP, 1990) Sheila Jasanoff (SJ) indicates that she desires stable regulatory outcomes.  She observes that this has been achieved most readily when scientists and policymakers negotiate rather than rigidly demarcate in advance the boundaries of science and policy.  At the same time, “science” and “policy” are used as boundary markers to prevent the negotiation going “too far,” that is, the issue getting opened up to wider political dispute and the public or branches of government derailing the regulatory procedures.

2.  No principles are derived to explain what amount of boundary blurring/crossing vs. demarcation is likely to produce stability vs. instability.  (SJ’s descriptions of the deconstruction of science and policy in cases in which negotiation went too far simply establish the existence of the problem of de/stabilization.)  Explanatory principles would require some framework/ theory of changing economics, politics, and communication in the USA.

3.  Deconstruction of the political dimensions of science should be possible in all cases, not just those in which the parties do so, nor just on their terms.  Ideas of social action, big and small, are built into science through the problems identified, categories chosen, relationships investigated, data collected, degree of confirmation sought, audiences addressed, and so on.  To explain the content and dynamics of science, including science in the regulatory domain, we need to expose this (heterogeneous) co-construction of science and social action.

4.  Exposure of such co-constructedness is potentially destabilizing, but, unless one shares SJ’s commitment to stabilized regulatory results, this is not a problem.  In fact, in the absence of such exposure and destabilization, the discourse about science and policy is likely to remain on the level of science vs. policy (albeit with a negotiated or contested border zone), and technocratic vs. democratic politics.  These categories are too gross to be insightful about the dynamics (see 2) that are producing the science/technology, regulation, and participation in question.

5.  Despite these criticisms, I do not agree with some prominent sociologists of science who dismiss science and policy as boring, that is, overladen with bureaucratic acronyms, swayed by obvious political maneuvring, and breaking no new ground theoretically (i.e., for Sociology of Scientific Knowledge).  We should examine science in the regulatory arena because

a) it differs from both marginal science and basic science on which sociology of science has concentrated; and

b) cases of the closure in regulatory science challenge sociology of science to go beyond micro-studies of interpretive flexibility and tackle the difficulties of explaining closure.  In regulatory science it would be hard to find cases in which influences shaping closure are not drawn from multiple levels, spanning individuals and political economy.

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