TCS Daily

Public Opinion vs. Public Policy

By Henry I. Miller - January 5, 2004 12:00 AM

"How can you tell whether a whale is a mammal or a fish?" a teacher asks her third-grade class. "Take a vote?" pipes up one of the pupils.

This idea might be amusing coming from a child, but it's a lot less funny when applied by governments to the formulation of complex policies that involve science and technology. And it's an approach that is becoming increasingly common around the world.

During the past two decades, the convening of citizens consensus conferences on a variety of issues has gained popularity in Denmark, where it is believed that non-experts "bring to the conferences a basic 'common sense' derived from worries, visions, general view and actual everyday experience as their basis for asking a number of essential questions concerned with the given subject."

This approach has been applied there to a wide spectrum of scientific and technological issues, including food irradiation; the new biotechnology -- also known as gene-splicing, or "GM," for genetically modified -- applied to agriculture, animals, food and industry; setting limits on chemicals in the environment; fishing policy; and human genome mapping.

It has metastasized elsewhere. Britons had their say during the summer, for example, on whether they want gene-spliced crops in their fields and their food. In order to gauge public opinion in advance of a decision scheduled for late this year on whether to allow commercial planting of gene-spliced crops, at great expense the British government sponsored a series of public discussions around the country, as well as using more conventional methods, such as focus groups. Local authorities held scores of additional public meetings on the subject.

The head of the British debates' organizing committee, Professor Malcolm Grant, called them a "unique experiment to find out what ordinary people really think once they've heard all the arguments."

But the reality argues otherwise. Mark Henderson, science correspondent for the Times (London), offered this view of the U.K.'s half-million pound initiative: "The exercise has been farce from start to finish. I'm not sure I want the man in the street to set Britain's science, technology and agriculture policy. One of the six meetings . . . spent much of its time discussing whether the SARS virus might come from [gene-spliced] cotton in China. It's more likely to have come from outer space."

Henderson went on to say that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only faction that was well enough organized and cared enough about the issue to attend. This comports with reports that as many as 79 percent of the 37,000 questionnaire responses were

orchestrated by activists.

Jan Bowman attended three of the events - including one in Stourbridge, "where both invited speakers opposed biotech" - and offered an assessment similar to Henderson's. "At all of them the audience numbered no more than 60, and was overwhelmingly middle class, white, and already anti-biotech."

The urge not only to sample, but to respond to public opinion flourishes across the Atlantic as well. The National Science Foundation, whose primary mission is to support laboratory research across many disciplines, is funding a series of "citizens technology forums," at which average, previously uninformed Americans come together to solve a thorny question of technology policy. According to the NSF's abstract of the project, being carried out by researchers at North Carolina State University under a 2002 grant, participants "receive information about that issue from a range of content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and technology, and representatives of special interest groups"; this is supposed to enable them to reach consensus "and ultimately generate recommendations."

The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels and expanded this year under a continuing grant, calls for eight more panels of fifteen citizens (who are "representative of the local population") each. Their deliberations will be overseen by a research team "composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and political science," that will test both "an innovative measure of democratic deliberation" and "also political science theory, by investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators."

At a time when federal budgets are under pressure and laboratory research funding is tight, the NSF has seen fit to spend almost half a million taxpayer dollars on this politically correct but dubious project.

Getting policy recommendations on an obscure and complex technical question from groups of citizen non-experts (who are recruited by newspaper ads) is sort of like going from your cardiologist's office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty, or just take medication. (It might help, of course, if there were specialists in the rhetoric of science and in group decision-making

having lunch at a nearby table.)

The first of these NSF-funded groups tackled regulatory policy towards agricultural biotechnology, and recommended that the government tighten regulations for growing gene-spliced crops, including a new requirement that the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers. Both of these proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate, and contrary to the recommendations of experts, including those within the government and in the scientific community.

The output of the citizens' panel illustrates that such undertakings have limitations both in theory and practice; non-experts are too much subject to their own prejudices and to the specific choice of materials and advocates to whom they are exposed.

Although involvement of the public is critical to their understanding of government policy, it is less useful for the formulation of policy. This is particularly true when complex issues of science and technology are involved. Science is not democratic. The citizenry do not get to vote on whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, or on the temperature at which water boils, and legislatures cannot repeal the laws of nature. (However, on questions to which there is no scientifically "right" answer -- such as at what age persons can drive and vote, or whether we should carry out more manned exploration of the moon -- public opinion can play a critical role.)

Thus, one should be wary of the attempts in various countries -- in recent years the Netherlands, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland, France, Argentina, Denmark and New Zealand, as well as the United States and the U.K., have conducted similar exercises on biotech-related issues -- to sample public opinion as a prelude to setting policy on biotechnology. Even if such opinion-sampling exercises were better organized, widely attended and more representative, their purpose should not be to translate the vox populi into policy on subjects highly dependent on an understanding of the subtleties of science and technology. Such undertakings would founder on the principle that something not worth doing at all is not worth doing well.

The goal of policy formulation should be to get the right answers -- in this case, that gene-splicing technology is essentially an extension, or refinement, of less precise genetic techniques that have been around for at least half a century; that gene-spliced plants can make critical contributions to farmers, consumers and the health of the natural environment; and that, except as science dictates in specific cases, the products of recombinant organisms should be regulated no differently than other, similar agricultural and food products. As the journal Nature editorialized a decade ago, "regulation of biotechnology products, whether in agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals or manufacturing, should be based on any inherent risk in the product, not on the process by which it is made." Just as for critical decisions about medical interventions and the design of airplanes and bridges, the best insights are likely to come from experts.

The formulation of public policy towards science and technology can be difficult, to be sure, but if democracy must eventually take public opinion into account, good government must also discount heuristic errors and prejudices. The 18th Century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke emphasized the government's responsibility to make such determinations. He observed that in republics, "Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

In other words, although it may be useful, and also politic, for governments to consult broadly on high-profile public policy issues, after the consultations and deliberations have been completed government leaders are supposed to lead. Now there's a novel idea.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was at the US National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration from 1977-1994.


TCS Daily Archives