Sheila Jasanoff – The Fifth Branch

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Sheila Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, Harvard Univ. Press, 1990.

Under the democratic constitution, it is generally and traditionally recognized that there are three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) as we know already. With the expansion and complexity of modern society, people’s needs of the fourth branch have been brought up. The fourth branch usually refers to the press or public interest groups (in terms of their power to lead public opinion), but sometimes it also refers to independent administrative (or regulatory) agencies, even though they are part of the executive (or legislative) branch of government, such as EPA and FDA as are frequently mentioned in this book. Those (independent) regulatory agencies might be called the fourth branch, due to their bureaucratic (technocratic in some sense) characteristics in the procedure of rulemaking. Jasanoff’s concept of the fifth branch might be connected with and originated from the fourth branch. According to her, the fifth branch refer to the scientific advisory committees (science advisors or technical experts) attached to the government agencies’ regulatory process.

What Jasanoff investigates in the book is, basically, how the scientific expert advisory systems as the fifth branch function, while she looks deeply into several controversies that revealed the nature of scientific decisionmaking and the relation between science and policy or between knowledge and politics. Following her critical analyses on complex power relations between science experts’ consultations and the regulatory system, I want to focus on the contention between actors in science policy making and on the feasible strategy to solve the puzzle of science and politics.

First of all, the procedure of decisionmaking is politically biased. Aside from the question of who the beneficiary is, if we ask whether there are the criteria of making the rules and regulations, it is not completely wrong to answer that they are based upon the policy maker’s political – in a broader sense – inclination and judgment. However, the regulatory systems required experts’ intervention since the 1970s, because “the rapid expansion of social regulation … created a host of new agencies and expanded the reach of federal regulatory activity across a much wider cross-section of commerce and industry”(2-3). Put differently, with the social changes such as introduction of new products or substances such as drugs, pesticides, or food additives, a new actor (scientist) in the regulatory system, who can provide scientific standards, is needed. Thus scientific and technical experts became a new powerful actor in the network composed of government authorities, industry, and public interest groups.

As a part of policy decision-making, scientific advice played an important role through experiments and research funded by federal regulatory agencies. But when science met policy and as its influence on policy making has grown, unexpected problems followed. As Jasanoff shows, many standard-setting cases around food additives and carcinogenic material (saccharine, nitrites, sulfite, benzene, formaldehyde and so on) in the regulatory system, even when supported by scientific advice committees, were so controversial that “Congress also enacted laws to enhance the public’s watchdog role over the process by which agencies seek scientific advice”(45). Those controversies were associated mainly with assumption that science guaranteed truth and that science experts’ advice was value-free, fail-safe and thus indispensible to policy making. How can they ensure the objectivity of science? And “how can they maintain their authority as neutral experts, especially when challenged in the media or the courts?”(9) The problems of objectivity and neutrality in science policy have been caused by the fact that science is vulnerable from the other actors in the network.

According to Jasanoff, as social constructionists of science argue, scientific knowledge is produced and constructed by the social process, from “the laboratory, where most scientific claims originate” to “wider communities, including the news media and the lay public”(13). Furthermore, as Kuhnian notion of paradigm suggests, “scientific activity in any period is merely that which conforms to the prevailing paradigm” that defines “what problems are worth solving and shapes scientists’ expectations of what they are likely to see when they investigate nature”(13). Jasanoff thinks that science succeeded “in acquiring and maintaining cognitive authority in a distrustful world”(14), although it seemingly has been obvious that scientific knowledge is contingent and relativistic.

Epitomizing Jasanoff’s main arguments regarding regulatory science, we can realize that two ways of approach to the advisory system are contesting against each other. Jasanoff asserts that “there are two commonly accepted paradigms for controlling the use of science by regulatory agencies”: the technocratic and democratic approaches. However, “neither approach … takes adequate account of the nature of science or of politics”(vii). The technocratic approach emphasizes that the legitimacy of science-based decision can be achieved by expanding “the role of the expert community in decisionmaking”(15-6), but the problems are that commercial and industrial interests favor this approach and that more investment do not produce better science. The democratic approach argues for “the need for nonscientific modes of accountability: open decisionmaking procedures, advance publication of decisionamking guidelines, and judicial review”(16), but “broad citizen participation alone cannot legitimate decisions that do not command the respect of the scientific community”(17). However, neither approach can generate successful solutions or durable truth satisfying all the actors in the network.

As an alternative of this contradiction in scientific advice, Jasanoff suggests a sort of mixture of “negotiation” and “boundary work.” With the negotiation model – an acceptance of the notion of the social construction of science, in some sense – scientific advice process can be more flexible by stressing the importance of “adjustments among divergent scientific viewpoints”(234). And “by drawing seemingly sharp boundaries between science and policy, scientists in effect post ‘keep out’ signs to prevent nonscientists from challenging or reinterpreting claims labeled as ‘science’”(236). These two processes look contradictory to each other, but interestingly “the most politically successful examples of boundary work are those that leave some room for agencies and their advisers to negotiate the location and meaning of the boundaries”(236).

Jasanaoff’s strategy seems to solve the contention between technocratic and democratic paradigm by depending more on science advice and investing more power to scientists. Nonetheless, this strategy needs to be reconstructed through continuous efforts to invest political neutrality, balanced composition of peer-review system, standardization of protocol and analytical methods, and so on. Since “there can be no perfect, objectively verifiable truth,” what we can “hope for is a serviceable truth: a state of knowledge that satisfies tests of scientific acceptability and supports reasoned decisionmaking, but also assures those exposed to risk that their interests have not been sacrificed on the altar of an impossible scientific certainty”(250). In this way, scientific knowledge needs to be, first of all, persuasive in order to function as a reasonable solution in the society.

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One comment

  1. Hugh: “An interesting complement to this book is Steve Hilgartner’s Science on Stage – a look at three science advisory panels to the US government on food standards. He’s interested in wy one panel in particular failed to produce a report that was widely accepted. Hilgartner is Jasanoff’s protégé.”

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