Thinking Long-Term About Public Controversies

Thinking Long-Term About Public Controversies

Author: Angela Cassidy – University of Exeter, United Kingdom


  • Karen Bickerstaff – University of Exeter, United Kingdom

This paper will consider long-running public scientific controversies – those in which scientific, social and policy uncertainties have been contested in the wider public sphere over several decades or longer. We draw on case studies of long running public controversies, including international debates over the siting and storage of nuclear waste; air quality; animal feeding; and bovine tuberculosis. By comparing across these cases, some common features become clear, including repeating cycles of built and broken expectations; the persistence – and elision of – memory; and the significance of place. We also observe such features in other long running science-policy-public controversies, including debates over fisheries management; flooding; pesticides; and climate change. They lead us to ask whether these commonalities are the simple consequence of a debate continuing for so long; or if we can identify factors driving the long term continuation of controversies. What roles are played by the public sphere, mass media, campaigners and publics? What are the consequences for research, policy and communication of the sciences involved? Is the prolonged nature of such debates linked to their environmental nature?

Drawing upon the literature on knowledge controversies, media and governance, we have developed a preliminary typology, drawing distinctions between controversies tapping into wider societal concerns; those about the implications of new scientific findings and/or technologies; and those in which scientific knowledge is itself ‘in the making’. Such an analysis contributes to longstanding questions about how public scientific controversies are created, intensifed, calmed and resolved; and how policymakers acti in the face of scientific uncertainty. We argue that looking back at the histories of such chronic, longterm controversies creates critical insights not only into how such controversies might be resolved in future, but also into broader problems in the interactions of ‘experts’, policy and society.

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Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time