Beyond The "Science Wars:" Should "Non-Experts" Participate In The Scientific Enterprise?

February 18, 1997

What role should non-scientists play in regulating genetic engineering? Who should decide where federal research funds will be invested? What role should laypeople play in designing clinical trials for AIDS drugs?

Questions about the role of "non-experts" in science and technology policymaking and scientific practice underlie the so-called "science wars" now raging between outspoken scientists, social scientists and citizen activists.

On one side are those who believe that only "experts" are qualified to participate in the activities of the scientific community. On the other are those who believe that laypeople can and should be involved in practices as wide ranging as setting federal research priorities and cooperatively undertaking research with scientists in areas that affect their lives.

"Science and technology are important parts of virtually every American's life," said Dr. Daniel Lee Kleinman, assistant professor in the School of History, Technology and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We must examine whether scientists alone should make decisions about the trajectory of the scientific enterprise."

To encourage wider discussion of the issue, Kleinman has organized a session called "Science and Democracy: Beyond the 'Science Wars'" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) February 13-18 in Seattle. The session, scheduled for 8:30 - 11:30 a.m. on February 18, will feature a range of viewpoints. (See list of panelists.)

So far, the "science wars" have largely been fought in the academic world, but Kleinman believes the difficult funding decisions to be made in Washington will soon raise the stakes. Unless consideration is given to broadening the role of non-experts in the U.S. science and technology enterprise, he warns, there could be serious consequences.

"Science and technology, and academic scholarship in general, are facing severe budgetary constraints as a result of the budget crises in Washington and the 50 states," Kleinman noted. "If scientists appear arrogant and assume that they can talk at, and not with, laypeople, they may find financial support drying up."

That would be unfortunate, because he believes many scientists are willing to accept informed input from "non-experts."

And, Kleinman adds, "there is room for laypeople to be involved in decision making about science and technology. There are cases that show, given the opportunity, laypeople can learn enough to make intelligent decisions about what research should be funded and even about how to do research.

"At a time when the growth of federal financial support for science has stagnated, the plausibility of this kind of decision making is what we ought to be talking about."

Kleinman notes that differing expectations, education and traditions have created a wide gulf between scientists and laypeople.

"Scientists are educated to think about their roles very differently than non-scientists," he explained. "Scientists are taught to believe in the notion of expertise and the sharp distinction between expert and non-expert."

As a result, scientists may question whether "non-experts" can make worthwhile contributions to substantive debate on science and technology issues. Surveys showing the general public with a low level of scientific literacy reinforce those doubts.

And because the pursuit of advanced scientific degrees require many years of study and training, scientists may logically wonder how laypeople could gain enough knowledge to discuss complex issues.

On the other side, laypeople often assume they cannot comprehend scientific issues. As a result, they may be content to leave complex technical questions to the experts, believing "scientists know what's best," Kleinman notes.

Institutional issues also create obstacles to establishing mechanisms for cooperation between scientists and laypeople, he points out.

Faculty contributions to public debate and communication about science and technology are seldom factors used in making promotion and tenure decisions at colleges and universities. Such activities typically do not receive funding, and so take time away from teaching and research activities that are rewarded and supported by academic institutions.

"The long term health of the scientific community should create a huge incentive for scientists to be involved in creating avenues for lay participation in the scientific enterprise," Kleinman explained. "But in the short term, for individual scientists at individual institutions, there may not be many incentives."

Likewise, few citizens can afford to spend the time necessary to gain expertise in complex and controversial issues such as nuclear waste disposal or genetically-engineered growth hormones. Yet the consequences of these decisions affect everyone regardless of their expertise.

Kleinman believes that democratizing science will require new policies and programs to encourage cooperation between experts and non-experts. University tenure decisions might take more seriously scientist work with community groups, and "citizen sabbaticals" could offer laypeople paid work leaves to study issues and join in debates.

"We live in a democracy, and living in a democracy doesn't just mean going to the polls and voting every two years," he added. "It means civic participation in the kinds of decisions that affect our everyday lives."

# # #
Following are the panelists at the AAAS session organized by Kleinman:

223 Centennial Research Building
Georgia Institute of Technology
Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0828
John Toon (404-894-6986) or Amanda Crowell (404-894-6980);
Internet:; FAX: (404-894-6983)
Dr. Daniel Kleinman (404-894-8401), Internet:

WRITER: John Toon

Georgia Institute of Technology

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