Vox Populi and Public Policy

“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. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Although this suggestion may be amusing coming from a child, it is 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.     

Britons had their say during the summer, for example, on whether they want biotechnology- derived, or gene-spliced, products in their fields and their food. To gauge public opinion in advance of a decision scheduled for later this month on whether to allow commercial planting of gene-spliced crops, the British government, at great expense, sponsored a series of public discussions around the country. Local governments and other organizations held hundreds of additional public meetings.

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, offered this view of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />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.”     

Mr. Henderson went on to observe 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 is consistent with reports that as many as 79 percent of the 37,000 questionnaire responses were orchestrated by activists.     

The urge to make policy based on public opinion about such issues flourishes on this side of the Atlantic as well. The U.S. 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, 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 each comprised of 15 citizens (who are “representative of the local population”). 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 diner, 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 toward 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. These proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate and contrary to the recommendations of experts, both within the government and in the scientific community.     

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. Legislatures cannot repeal laws of nature.     

The goal of policy formulation should be to get the right answers — in this case, that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of less precise genetic techniques that have been around for at least a half-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 gene-spliced 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.”     

The formulation of public policy towards science and technology can be difficult, to be sure, but if democracy is to take public opinion appropriately into account, good government must 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.”