Integrating community knowledge and concerns into policy making is challenging. It’s also essential.

Posted on Thursday, December 3, 2020

Author: Prof. Kelly Bronson

Kelly Bronson

Canada Research Chair in Science and Society and Core Member of the ISSP
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, uOttawa

On November 17, 2020, the ISSP hosted a panel entitled Aligning Science, Society and Policy for the Grand Challenges of our Time at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks. 

With any technology there come gains as well as new ethical and social justice issues. We know this from historical experience, such as the widespread application of computer technologies, which has been enabling for some (e.g. allowing many “creative economy” workers to operate remotely) but disabling for others (e.g. technological unemployment for some labourers). It is important to anticipate the social and ethical issues that arise from technologies and ideally to do so before we implement and scale them so that risks can be managed. History has shown the downsides of not doing this critical forecasting and risk mitigation: loss of faith in science and technology, legitimacy crises with institutions responsible for governing science and technology. 

Stakeholder engagement (SE) is one mechanism for anticipating the social and ethical dimensions of technologies. Integrating the feedback of ordinary citizens, and especially members of communities who will be acutely affected by technologies, accomplishes several things. First, SE can uncover risks that otherwise would not come to light and thus fill gaps in regulatory and other policy knowledge. 

Decision-makers are not always aware of on-the-ground or lived realities that are important for assessing risk. For example, my qualitative research with farmers protesting GMOs revealed that at root of public protest was a desire among citizens to have their political and economic concerns around seeds heard. Politicians and regulators were largely ignorant to the social and political effects because they assumed that public concern centered on environmental or human health harms. Second, SE can engender trust among stakeholders who have diverse value positions on technologies, and the engagement itself can encourage people to come to less polarized positions. Indeed, my work on public engagement with hydraulic fracturing policy in New Brunswick demonstrated that even if the resulting decision did not please everyone (and it never can), people had a sense that “procedural justice” was achieved. SE allows people to listen and to feel heard. Third, SE is simply the right thing to do especially when it comes to consequential technologies. We know that marginalized and vulnerable peoples most often bear the brunt of risks arising from technologies. 

If there are so many benefits to SE, why is it not standard practice in technology design and technical policy-making? Well, it is not easy. Sometimes what citizens bring to the table goes against the desired path for policy-makers. Also, SE processes have to be designed well, otherwise they can not only be ineffective but actively harmful. Take for example impact assessments (IA) of large energy projects like pipelines: even though Canadian legislation calls for “meaningful public engagement”, my research shows that in practice more could be done to ensure that during consultations attention is given to status-based inequalities that occur due to groups being accorded less esteem and prestige than others, and also to fundamental differences in worldviews among participants. Efforts to meaningfully engage Indigenous Peoples in IA have been hamstrung because organizers, participants, or decision-makers often do not treat Indigenous knowledge systems on an equal basis with western assessments of things like harm. In fact, I am currently working with the Office of the Chief Scientists and Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to develop a tool for adjudicating the rigour and validity of social science used in IA decisions, which can be treated poorly if assessed according to the same (positivist) standards used for quantitative studies like ecosystem analysis.

As a researcher, this work is time-consuming and labour intensive and does not always fit with the pressures on academics to publish a lot and quickly. SE research starts with relationship building, which takes time. COVID-19 is a complicating factor in this regard; the virtual world is simply not the same as face-to-face contact. This research also requires a lot of listening and facilitating across differences, disciplinary worldviews, and interests. 

I am in a great place to conduct this type of research at the University of Ottawa, as a Canada Research Chair in Science and Society, and with the ISSP. In addition to research, the ISSP fosters these convergences and creates spaces for interdisciplinary conversation. Our location in Ottawa also enables my links to government. Canada is a thought leader on inclusiveness and responsible innovation and we ought to be proud of the commitments of our government and funding agencies, such as our Directive on Automated Decision-Making. ISSP Core Member, Dr. Jason Millar, and I recently finished a collaboration related to this Directive where we worked with Treasury Board Secretariat and Canadian School for Public Service on a “toolkit” for doing peer review of automated decision tools used in government.  

As progressive as Canada is, we could do more to accelerate innovation policy that puts justice front and centre. We should explore developing a concrete mechanism within government to fund alternative S&T trajectories. Funding patterns, incentive systems, and even civil society pressure can push toward selective aspects of investigation leaving whole areas of S&T neglected. For instance, my work on agricultural technologies reveals that small, organic and agro-ecology farmers are not able to engage with emergent tools in sensing, big data and machine intelligence. Corporations are making these innovations specifically for large-scale and resource rich farmers and a gap or need is left. Who will fill this gap? 

More inclusive innovation in these areas can help Canada make good on commitments to inclusive growth, climate change mitigation and reconciliation. When we work with the public, a diversity of stakeholders (or “rights holders”) we more effectively anticipate both their concerns and their technological needs, and we get stronger and more durable outcomes. 

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