Opening Up Spaces for Reflexivity? Scientists’ Discourses about Stem Cell Research and Public Engagement
Marks, Nicola J
This thesis starts with what the House of Lords Third Report (2000) has identified as a “crisis of trust” between science and society. It explores ways of addressing this crisis by examining stem cell researchers’ discourses about their work and public engagement, and suggests ways of improving scientists’ engagement with publics. My journey from natural to social sciences started with an in-depth critical analysis of constructive (or critical) perspectives on public understanding of science (e.g. Irwin and Wynne). This highlighted the importance of investigating scientific institutions and scientists, and their embedded assumptions about publics, engagement and science. My research expands upon the limited empirical research on this topic and draws upon data from interviews and discussions with 54 stem cell researchers (of different levels of seniority and field of research, in Australia and the UK). Using informants’ discourse as a “topic” and a “resource” (Gilbert and Mulkay), the thesis explores in detail the strategic and socially contingent definitions and boundaries (Gieryn) in stem cell research (SCR). Analysis of the empirical material develops four main themes. Firstly, the language and conceptual fluidity of SCR is emphasised and shown to enable scientists to conduct “boundary-work” in a variety of ways. Secondly, discourses and performances of (un)certainty are examined to highlight a diversity of socially contingent identities SCR professionals can draw upon. This examination draws on MacKenzie’s “certainty trough” but also improves it by problematising the concept of “distance from knowledge production”. Thirdly, scientists’ expressions of trust and ambivalence are analysed as interactions with particular “expert systems” such as processes of informed consent, commercialisation or legislation in conditions of increased globalisation. By highlighting hermeneutic aspects of trust, this analysis is sharpened and shows that there are elements of “counter-modernity” as well as “reflexive modernisation” in SCR. It is argued that, to further explore the reflexive potential of stem cell professionals’ critiques of their work, these need to be further discussed in public. The forth and final theme focuses more specifically on engagement. Stem cell researchers’ accounts are shown to construct and perform publics, scientists and engagement – and thus “scientific citizenship” – in a variety of ways. This variety can be made sense of by reflecting on conceptions of expertise, democracy, and power. This enables the development of six “ideal-types” of engagement that can be used heuristically to study performances of citizenship. The thesis concludes by discussing its main contributions to knowledge. It highlights how social scientists can encourage greater “interpretative reflexivity” (Lynch) on the part of scientists; this can, in turn, lead to improved science-public relations.