Controversies provide a unique lens into understanding how people access and engage science toward influencing change in regulation and enforcement of environmental pollution legislation. Legal disputes are particularly illuminating in providing a clear opening for scholars to understand the position of the various parties in the making of policy-relevant scientific evidence. They provide a lens into the mind of scientists, citizens, corporations, and government via depositions, documents and courtroom testimony, revealing social and political elements within scientific knowledge, particularly where there is disagreement.
Additionally, comparative work on scientific knowledge claims can yield unexpected outcomes, providing insights into the respective cultures. Thus the learning from comparative citizen-science modes of engagements is not only about examining different outcomes and mechanisms for change, but also about understanding how deeply cultural and social norms impact the making of public science and environmental regulatory change.
Citizens living and working near industry have a vested interest in knowing more about environmental health science, in particular, how their exposure to hazardous products and waste impacts their health and welfare. Often the science that is used to establish environmental and occupational regulation has been initially completed by industry. In some cases no testing was done and industrial norms were substituted for threshold limits for human exposure in regulatory domains. This, by default, turned the worker and the citizens into a public laboratory with occasional unintended consequences. Thus citizens are often late to ask questions of science, sometimes after suspicions of illness have arisen from their own observations or in conversation with their neighbors or work associates.
In her book Designs on Nature (2005), science policy scholar Sheila Jasanoff has argued that in any society there are “shared understandings about what credible [science] claims should look like” and that they vary depending on the cultural attributes of the society or nation (249). She uses the term “civic epistemology” to describe the ways in which the public is a participant in the constitution of knowledge acknowledging the cultural and political situatedness of the process. Often times the circuitous route of science and public participation is difficult to unravel or to attribute agency to particular interest groups or individuals. Thus, the importance of controversies and disputes in revealing alliances, biases, and other attributes of the various actors and organizations in shaping civic knowledge.
From my observations and research in Italy and the US, the production of citizen-relevant scientific knowledge has both similarities and differences. There are two similar regions in the U.S. and Italy that have been impacted by hazards produced by large petrochemical complexes. In both the U.S. (Louisiana’s chemical corridor), and Italy (Porto Marghera) there have been public controversies over pollution and exposure to toxic hazards with regard to the chemical industry. Looking at how citizens construct or access environmental science in answer to their questions about impact, or answering their concerns about exposure varies, in part, due to cultural and national differences.
One category of comparison is the space for scientific research, specifically that which answers the questions that citizens have regarding the impacts of chemical toxins on their bodies and the environment. In Italy, there have been several venues for the production of science toward answering public questions. The platforms for this kind of work include, the unions, unaffiliated science institutes, universities, and NGOs. In the instance of worker health and safety, the unions, university health research and independent institutes have provided valuable science for institutional and regulatory change. The unions also provide alternative civic forums and meeting spaces for public meetings regarding health and science to occur. One example of science done in the public interest is the Ramazzini Foundation, a group founded in the 1970s for the prevention of cancer and focusing on identifying and quantifying carcinogenic risks of industrial and environmental origin. The work done by foundation scientists has shown the impacts of some chemicals on human health toward changing exposure limits and helping improve industrial practices.
The utilization of traditional scientific studies from private institutes and universitiesby individual citizens was also instructive. In the Italian chemical region of Porto Marghera, one industrial worker, after having many of his fellow workers die of cancer, began to keep a journal and ask questions in the plant. He later searched for scientific evidence of his suspicions and found the occupational health research of the University of Padova as well as that of the Ramazzini Foundation. Assembling this information along with the own data, he was able to publish a series of articles in the journal, Medicina Democratica, thus legitimizing his work. He then took the publications to the public prosecutor in Venice, and that was the beginning of what was to be a path-breaking trail ending in a change of direction for chemical production in Marghera.
In the Louisiana chemical corridor, there were two main avenues for citizens by which the lay public engaged with science. The first was for the citizens to collect their own data, sometimes referred to as popular epidemiology. The second was using the data to influence governmental decision-making. Often the popular study was given to the media at the same time it is presented to the elected officials, putting pressure on regulators to act. However, citizen science studies in the U.S. were not given expert status via publication in journals because there is a very strict line between lay and expert science. In the U.S., the state may choose to take a citizen study as a reason to conduct an official scientific investigation. In Louisiana, this has proved less effective because often an official study was designed to show little or no effect thus negating the citizen study in an attempt to defuse public concern and support industrial growth.
Public-oriented science done by activist or citizen-scientists either in private labs or university venues are another way people living and working in communities impacted by chemical hazards get their questions addressed. While there is a tradition of worker and citizen oriented health science in Italy, such as the Ramazzini Foundation and research done in worker health at the University of Padova, there is no similar tradition in Louisiana. In the case of private labs, citizens’ questions are either addressed by scientists volunteering their time and resources or concerned groups must fund such research. Because this is expensive, often these scientists produce the minimum science necessary to prompt government action or help citizens do their own studies to directly impact the regulatory process.
The involvement of the university labs has proved more difficult in Louisiana. While university scientists have shown a willingness to help communities, local universities have proven to be less enthusiastic. Occasionally university administrators try to stop or thwart efforts that they feel is counter to state economic interests. In part, this is because citizens armed with university peer-reviewed science would be able to use it in court to influence legal action against chemical companies.
One important difference between science done by citizens in the U.S. and in Italy is that in the U.S. lay science cannot usually be brought into court due to legal rules. In Italy, the converse is true. A citizen scientist can become an expert via publication and reputation. Additionally, the court system is not all together adversarial with respect to science, with scientists, hired by judges, acting in the public interest to provide less partisan science for his or her consideration.
While no broad generalizations can be made about how citizens construct and use science, it is clear that public science can be quite different, due to social, legal and institutional norms. Sheila Jasanoff has classified civic epistemology in the U.S. as ‘contentious’ as authoritative decisions on science for regulatory purposes are often decided in the courts or by other partisan means. I would suggest that the civic epistemology in Italy is social network based, decided by extended groups of related citizens and organizations, brought together to influence regulations and enforcement. While there is much more work to be done on the role of social context in the participation of the public in shaping science, it is clear that citizens faced with the hazards of similar technologies choose divergent paths in framing and addressing both risks and corrective measures.
Barbara Allen is Director of the Graduate Program in Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech’s Washington, DC area campus and member of the Observa scientific committee. Her most recent book is “Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes” (MIT Press: 2003).