Public Perceptions, Knowledge Deficit and Expertise.

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.


During past scientific controversies, natural scientists have often sought to convince people from ‘the public’ to trust that they know what they’re doing with science because they’re the experts. They also often seemed to feel that ‘the public’ and the government should just let scientists make decisions on their own because they are the most qualified to judge the science on its own terms. This was a common response, for example, to questions that were asked of scientists about the emergence and use of genetically modified foods, which forms an important background to the contemporary development of synthetic biology. Researchers largely seemed to think that people were frightened of GM foods because they didn’t understand the science. A related idea was that this ‘public ignorance’ of the science could be somehow cured if we educated people about GM technologies. In this regard, scientists assumed the main problem was a ‘knowledge deficit’ in public understanding of science, which meant that public perceptions of science were skewed and inappropriate but could be changed by better education and ‘outreach’.  So scientists set about telling people about the GM work they were doing, hoping to calm ‘the public’ fears by providing knowledge.

In iGEM much of the work that teams do in human practices still follows this model. Most teams go out into public spaces like schools, community centres and so forth, to tell people about the work they’re doing. Mostly it is a one way thing, where teams tell people the science and hope that this interests them or at least that it allays some of their fears. One reason for this is that there is a major constraint on human practices work in iGEM. You have very little time to read or explore HP scholarship, and – for the most part – having only studied a single subject at university, most of you will be unfamiliar with the methods and conceptual apparatus used in humanities and social sciences. So it is much easier to adopt these kinds of one-off outreach activities, talk to the public and then get back to the lab, to updating your wiki pages and preparing for the jamboree. After all, there’s no hope of a medal or an award if you haven’t actually got an engineered microbe to present no matter how many people you’ve talked to about your project or how much you’ve learned about social science. So the priorities of iGEM teams are set-up in part by the medal criteria.

So what’s the point of engaging with ‘the public’ in iGEM human practices or in synthetic biology more generally? Before I approach that question I first want to dwell on this phrase for a paragraph or two. ‘The public’ is usually invoked by scientists and iGEM team members alike to indicate the mass of people who are not familiar with the scientific knowledge that they themselves have developed. It implies a uniform group, made of non-scientists. But of course, ‘the public’ isn’t a unitary group. There are all kinds of differences in people’s lives, like gender, race, religion, class, age, education, profession, and so on, that change their experience of the world in ways that have nothing at all to do with whether they have studied genetic engineering or not. This is why social science researchers tend to talk about ‘publics’, in order to imply all those differences and complexities that make up the worlds of human life.

Moreover, scientists themselves are part of publics, since they also have lives that extend beyond the lab, they have concerns outside of academia, and most will have relationships and intimacies that are not part of their professional work. In this regard, scientific developments, innovations, knowledge-making practices and so on are just as important to different individual scientists as they might be to non-scientists. One chemical engineer who has a child with a genetic disease might think quite differently about how we begin to use epigenetics in our organisation of society than might another chemical engineer who doesn’t have children.

Importantly, scientists also comprise a number of different publics because they also have values and perspectives as part of their work. Scientific values and perspectives are part of the practices of different kinds of scientific education and research. So – as I’ve tried to describe in previous posts – these values and ways of thinking are going to be difficult to disentangle or even to see or describe by the scientists who are competent in those practices. Some of these values, for example, consist in a commitment to certain forms of evidence and argument, to certain ways of doing knowledge-making, to ethical principles about life, its meanings and what human beings are about and how we should relate to each other. Scientists also often have beliefs about the roles of science in governance of social life and how expertise should be used. And, much like riding a bike, these assumptions, values and perspectives are just part of how you do it – they’re embodied in how you do the work and how the practices are organised.

In this way, we can begin to see that scientists are also just humans doing a specific kind of practice, namely, synthetic biology in the case of iGEM.

Why talk to publics then? Well, because it will help to explore what it is that you have assumed about your work, its purposes and how the technologies you’re making might be used. Importantly, though, this involves more than just asking people what they think. It means trying to see the significance of practices that you’ve invoked in your iGEM project work and to think critically about how you are intending to change those practices. It also means accepting that there are other forms of expertise that are relevant to changing practices with scientific innovations. The contexts in which innovations are imagined to be used in the future – like how we currently envisage the use of synthetic artemisinin – will involve a number of different people from different publics who will be competent experts in the practices involved in those contexts.

So, for example, imagine you’re designing an organism that will make a kind of sustainable cooking oil. Brilliant – there are lots of ways in which a sustainable cooking oil could be good for the world. But you should also use your human practices to explore how cooking oil is currently used. In what practices does it play a role? Of course, there’s home cooking, there is also restaurant and take-away cooking, there’s military and hospital and other public service cooking. Then there are various practices involved in the manufacture, distribution, marketing and selling of cooking oils that differ according to the practices in which the cooking oil is intended for use. All of these practices may differ across different regions of the world. In home cooking in the UK, for example, the use of oil is loaded with a range of different values and meanings by virtue of how cooking is connected to other practices, including eating, caring for one’s family, being healthy, getting sick, growing older, being in a rush, going to work, and so on and so forth. Your iGEM project might produce a cooking oil that disrupts some of the values and meanings that are embedded in these practices or that implies the adoption of new values and meanings that weren’t a part of these practices previously.

Imagine something as small and seemingly inconsequential as the cooking oil being a slightly different colour. The meanings of the colour might be quite important as part of these practices of cooking, eating and so on. For example in how the colour yellow of most oils has been connected to sunshine, blooming fields and farms, good and bad health, and so forth in their marketing or contestation.

Or imagine if it tastes a bit different. Practices of cooking and eating embed practices of taste. What tastes good and why is complex and not simply a biological phenomenon. In the UK at least there is also the phenomenon of ‘good’ and ‘bad taste’, having to do not only with the flavour of the food but also with what kinds of flavours that different groups of society associate with their lifestyles. So to have good taste is part of being seen as a competent member of the social group and forms a part of one’s expertise as a member of that group. Good taste is very much affected by class, ethnicity, and age. What counts as good taste in a working class, white household in urban London might be quite different to a middle class, Afro-Caribbean household in rural Kent. So what might be acceptable as a change in the colour or taste of cooking oil for these families might be quite different because the kinds of flavours and ways of cooking that the oil is involved in might differ. Moreover, cooking for one’s family is rife with important values that are embedded in how we live and organise our relationships with each other. How we use food might be different in the context of being a new father tasked with taking care of a child’s health, or in working at a hospital canteen trying to keep people happy and letting them still have their own choices, or in a mother appeasing a bossy teenager going through adolescence. People might have a problem with a GM cooking oil for reasons that have nothing to do with not ‘understanding the science’ and everything to do with their very detailed, situated and embodied understandings of health, taste, family, care and so on. Publics are multifarious and complex because practices are multifarious and complex. How we make sense of people’s reactions to scientific developments has to take into consideration the expertise that these people use in their practices and how this shapes the values and meanings placed on scientific change.

Much of the time, scientists of most varieties spend their time developing more and more specialised knowledge about a number of topics and so becoming far more expert in a smaller number of practices. Just like most professionals. Good lawyers, chefs, teachers, pilots, mothers, fathers, hairdressers, doctors, painters and decorators all become experts in sets of practices that affect the way that they think about the world. Our values and perspectives are tied to the practices in which we live and in which we have become expert. And when scientists seek to change something about our practices, like introducing a new product into the practice, there are many features to how we make sense of this proposed change that have very little to do with a knowledge deficit in molecular biology and more to do with our differences in expertise.

Talking to publics, then, has to be about understanding the human practices that are involved with the kinds of products that you’re envisioning in your iGEM work. Although you’re experts in science and in iGEM you might well be novices in growing crops, selling farm produce, distribution, marketing, managing a retail chain, cooking, being a parent, feeding a family, being a Buddhist, and so on and so forth. You’ll need lots of methods and concepts that don’t exist in synthetic biology in order to be able to understand these forms of expertise and relate them to your work. Human practices is about exploring these worlds and practices and trying to make sense of how your products and envisaged changes to the world will be made sense of. Investigating the human practices bound up with your proposed innovations should help you to critically think about and so possibly change how you design and construct those innovations. In this regard, human practices should be about your knowledge deficit, and not that of ‘the public’.


In a future post I’ll begin to discuss some of the methods that you might use to do human practices in a way that is more conducive to this kind of analysis and that goes beyond outreach and public understanding.


Innovation in the water industry: Is the price too high?

Innovation in the water industry: Is the price too high?

This past month has seen much debate about the rising prices of utilities in the UK, focussing on gas and electricity. The price hikes have come not long after reports that companies have made massive increases in profits, for example Scottish Power more than doubled its pre-tax profit to £712m in the year that it raised gas and electricity prices by 7%. This is important, not least because over 3 million people were in fuel poverty in 2011 [see tables here]). David Cameron says that the reason behind rising prices is the introduction of green levies. But when set against this background of fuel poverty means that people are being forced to choose not only between eating and heating, but also between eating and the hope for a habitable climate. I mention all of this to substantiate the claim that the politics of energy often include important considerations of cost and climate change, amongst other issues (for example, energy security) and the balance between the two, but also to highlight the impact of rising utility prices on poverty in the UK.

Questions about rising prices in the water industry often play out according to the same issues of climate change and poverty. But things have been relatively quiet of late for the water companies, which might, in part, be that the average cost of water per household is relatively small compared to gas and electricity, costing £388 compared to £1279 [1 + 2]. Nonetheless, water poverty is a very significant problem in the UK. In the period 2009-10, nearly a quarter (23.6%) of households were in water poverty (requiring that they spend more than 3% of their income on water).

From 'Water Poverty in England and Wales'
From ‘Water Poverty in England and Wales’

Prices have consistently risen since privatisation of the water industry in 1989, and have increased faster than overall prices in the UK and faster than average earnings. This is partly because of increasing costs of water provision and treatment, which is caused by a range of factors including climate change (flooding and drought), water practices (consumer and corporate ‘over-use’ and waste) and infrastructural problems (ageing of pipes and leakage in distribution). One key dimension to the increasing price of water is thus the costs of investing in innovations to help to tackle the effects of and reduce our contribution to climate change, and to fix the maze of Victorian pipes that are leaking under out feet.

In a recently published paper, Susan Molyneux-Hodgson (University of Sheffield) and I, presented findings from two years of research on the way in which a group of academic researchers tried to produce a bold technical innovation in the water industry. As part of that work we explored how academic researchers and industry actors worked together and how these groups explained the lack of funding for adventurous innovations. We identified a recurring story about the UK’s impregnable ‘innovation barrier’ for developing cutting-edge technologies, for which there is very limited funding since much of the available money from the UK research councils and from the companies themselves goes instead towards producing incremental improvements in existing techniques.

In our interviews with academics and industrial actors we found that the major narrative explaining the lack of industrial investment was that consumers were ignorant of the costs and ‘true value’ of water and were unwilling to pay the real cost of managing the network and developing novel technologies to help alleviate the problems of climate change and the ageing of the infrastructure. They blamed consumers for their influence on regulators, who seem to be unwilling to let the companies charge more.

Many academic colleagues in natural sciences and engineering bought into the idea that the problem wasn’t so much with monopolies profiting massively from essential water services – whilst the infrastructure aged and climate change got worse – but with consumers, who just couldn’t accept how much it would cost for problems to be fixed. Ultimately, then, the construction of the problem framed its own solution: actors wanted to educate the consumer about the value of water so that they will be willing to pay more for research and innovation, which they believe will help solve leakage and climate change problems.

But we would be rightly sceptical to think that higher prices for water would be used to invest heavily in research to fix problems and lower consumer bills because industrial priorities are not skewed towards investment in infrastructure and technical solutions. For example, across the UK market, investment in research and development varies from a piddling 0.02% of turnover up to the disappointingly tiny drop in ocean at 0.66%. In our interviews with industrial actors we found that they saw no clear incentive to invest in bold technological programmes of innovation if there wasn’t a clear profit to come from it.

Of course, the investment in technologies that might help to protect us against the increasing severity of floods and storms, shortages and droughts, and to help reduce the impact we are having on the global environment are not easily turned into short-term profit making ventures. But clearly, the cost to our water infrastructure, service provision and treatment would be astronomical if we allowed climate change to escalate and the infrastructure to crumble. Technologies are not the only thing we need to help alleviate these problems – we also have to look at consumer and corporate practices. But technological innovation is important. The costs of innovation are not too high, they are essential, but the companies still aren’t willing to pay.

Just like David Cameron wants to focus on green levies in tackling rising fuel bills, trying to educate consumers so that they see the true value of water and thus are willing to pay more is one way of trying to protect profits for shareholders at the expense of often impoverished people in the UK. Regulators of the utilities and our politicians have to be brave and challenge the industries to ensure that profits are not put ahead of the protection of fuel and water poor people in our country or at the expense of our climate and future survival.