8 Interrogating Expertise

Science and technology have played a crucial role in the development of India. This encompasses centuries-old traditions of agricultural, medical and architectural science, as well as recent investments in science and technology that has moved India to the forefront of international modernisation in the global south and east. The latter has resulted in giving India prominence in the international scientific communities of most natural sciences, engineering and agricultural disciplines, social sciences and humanities. The expertise that these scientific and engineering practitioners have is duly recognized in Indian society and Indian policymaking and politics.

This Manifesto will argue that other forms of expertise— often pejoratively labelled as non-scientific—need to be incorporated into scientific policy making when aiming for a long-term sustainable culture and society. Without such incorporation, societies will develop tensions and schisms that threaten their sustainability. Indian society has a long history of recognizing that there is a spectrum of expertise. One instance of recognition goes back centuries when a broad spectrum of philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and ayurvedic doctors built up the body of Indian knowledge. This Manifesto will argue that extending that tradition will strengthen rather than weaken the role of science in Indian society.

Experts versus lay persons?

The standard, modern image of expertise makes a distinction between experts and lay persons, and most often equates the expert with the scientists and the layperson with someone without scientific knowledge and expertise. Increasingly this standard image of experts and expertise is producing problems. The problems partly arise because scientific knowledge proves not to be sufficient to solve societal problems, and partly because the general public does not always trust the scientists anymore, even if it continues to respect them as a matter of habit. An important reason for this erosion of trust is an increasing confluence of interests between the experts and commercial interests. This erosion of trust seems to have progressed further in the north and west than in the south and east; we will return to the specific Indian situation below, after sketching the general issue.

Knowledge from the natural and technical sciences is not sufficient to deal with societal problems because every large technological project has many aspects that are beyond the narrow confines of engineering and science. Let us consider the example of water resource management. In addition to technical aspects of design and construction, irrigation systems also have agricultural aspects of matching the irrigation plan to the farming styles, social aspects that may affect relations in the villages, economic aspects that influence the distribution of the benefits, and legal aspects of ownership, compensation and regulation. These aspects call for expertise from the social sciences or humanities to supplement the natural-scientific and technical. There are however, more kinds of knowledge and expertise that need to be included. These are not scientific or scholarly, but can be labelled ‘experience-based.’ Increasingly, for example, European advisory institutions on health and medicine include representatives from patient organisations on their committees; industries involve users in their design process; and infrastructural projects consult with citizens. So, a variety of forms of knowledge – scientific, scholarly and experience-based – needs to go into the design and implementation of any large scientific-technological projects. These committees do not only exist in Europe. India has similar committees, but somehow the European ones seem to work better. If the members of Indian committees do not listen to each other as well as the members in European committees, this is probably caused by a deeply engrained standard image of expertise that creates a deep divide between scientists and non-scientists, exacerbated further by language barriers that make communication difficult in India between experts and citizens.

The second problem is that increasingly the general public does not trust scientific advice as unhesitatingly as it used to do. Citizens and consumers have more sources of knowledge, also on matters scientific and technological, than the official spokespersons of science and technology: these may come from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the mass media, or a variety of Internet sources. In Europe Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food were banned when the general public felt that some of the risks associated with GM had been underestimated or misrepresented by the scientists and the industry. At this moment there is hardly any GM food on the European shelves, and scientific statements that argue the safety of GM crops are mistrusted. The Dutch government has now concluded that to avoid a similar chain of events in nanotechnologies, other forms of knowledge and expertise need to be involved early on. Various programmes have been created in Europe and the US to tap the expertise of social scientists, philosophers of ethics, stakeholders, users and citizens in policy making about nanotechnologies and in their implementation in research and development programmes. We will return to some Dutch experience with this, later in this Manifesto.

The situation in India seems different, at least for the time being. The post-independence “priesthood” of specialist engineers and scientists still seems to be held in high esteem. It is too easy to conclude that this implies that the Indian general public has an exceptionally high trust in scientists and scientific knowledge. It is also possible that the trust is primarily in institutions and in the given hierarchical order. The debates on Genetically Modified crops in India indicate how encounters between science and democracy have played out. Requests by citizen groups using the enabling Right To Information (RTI) Act for scientific information on field trials have often been denied under the pretext of citizens lacking expertise in these domains. The scientific establishment and regulatory authorities have had difficulties being independent and have often demanded scientific evidence from these groups. Nuclear power and space technology are totally different categories in India, which seem exempt from normal political or public evaluation. This Manifesto will not follow that line of reasoning: we see no reason why these or any technologies should not be subject to political or democratic governance.

This Manifesto argues for an India that uses science and technology for its own agenda, for a certain style of doing science and technology, and for policies that transcend the dichotomy between experts and non-experts. It will argue for using science and technology for the benefit of the people, and it will argue for including the rich variety of expertise, knowledge and experience available in Indian culture and society in scientific practice. This immediately raises the question how non-scientific forms of expertise can be given a voice; how expertise from outside the scientific establishment can be given influence inside; how the “citizen” will converse with the “scientist.” The larger project of which this Manifesto forms the starting point is specifically aimed at these issues. Reviews of democratization experiences in other parts of the world, and experimentations in India with this Manifesto, will hopefully lead to making better use of the broad spectrum of expertise that exists in Indian society.

Exploring expertise

Expertise has many components and can be evaluated along many dimensions. It is thus not only about competences but also about social status. Having an English education, having a degree, and coming from a high caste and class make an Indian expert in terms of social status. Having inside expertise of a certain domain amounts to expertise in terms of competence.

Such inside expertise can come in different forms. We distinguish two forms: (1) expertise to understand and follow discussions and (2) expertise to actively contribute to the further development of the inside knowledge or to the design of a particular technology. The first is easier to acquire than the second. The first kind of expertise is typically sufficient for interaction with scientists and engineers about policy choices or about balancing risks and benefits of a specific scientific or technical development. The second kind of expertise is needed to actively contribute to the making of scientific or technical knowledge. The mistaken opinion that citizens, users, patients, or stakeholders cannot be consulted on issues scientific and technological results from confusing these two forms of expertise. Since most of the time non-scientists indeed cannot contribute to substantive scientific work, it is erroneously assumed that neither can they interact on choices of priority, policy and ethics.

Taking the multifaceted character of modern science and technology seriously makes it inevitable to adopt the previously introduced broad view of expertise. It does not make sense to talk of “scientific expertise” per se. A nuclear physicist does not have expertise in dam building and vice versa. The dam building engineer is in no better a position when discussing a nuclear power station than any other educated citizen. The only sensible way to conceptualize expertise is as a spectrum of different forms of expertise. There is no ground for prioritizing the expertise of a certain domain, at least not in a general fashion. For certain questions you need expertise of physics, for others of sociology. For some questions you need expertise that can actively contribute, for other questions the expertise that allows you to interact is sufficient.

For a “scientific audit” or a peer-review assessment of a project you need contributory expertise in that specific domain. For a “social audit” such expertise would not be enough and perhaps not even necessary. For the latter, you need a variety of interactional forms of expertise. Depending on the precise question of the social audit, you will need citizens, stakeholders, scientists, and/or engineers. And, of course, not just any citizens, stakeholders, scientists or engineers; but those with the specifically required interactional expertise for that particular social audit.

From all experts we expect a form of critical self-reflection, knowing where the limits of their forms of expertise are and where and when to involve other experts.

Social dimensions of expertise

Once the need to involve other forms of expertise in policymaking on science and technology is recognized, there are more implications than merely pertaining to the set-up of advisory committees and the inclusion of citizens and stakeholders in certain forums. Some of these implications address fundamental characteristics of Indian society. It is one thing to argue for the recognition of the expertise of citizens, in addition to the expertise of scientists. But what about Scheduled Castes and other radically marginalized people, who are in many cases not even recognized as citizens? These are so marginalized that they will not claim, for a considerable time to come, space to be heard unless they are encouraged to do so. Citizens who can speak on their behalf need to swell yet, though a good number are now ready to speak to support them.

Recognizing the spectrum of expertise implies the need to also recognize the spectrum of identities, of peoples; and to recognize that identities are context-dependent. One may be a physicist, or a Brahmin, or a citizen, or stakeholder – and often, some of them may be together. Caste identity, for example, implied a clear structure and guarantee of livelihood. Caste also represented a knowledge hierarchy. Social relations were clearly laid out and social movements were structured; by birth it was determined what you could and could not do. But politics of caste – in terms of questioning the hierarchies of the caste system – was not possible. This is changing to some extent, but much of these characteristics of Indian society are still in place.

Enacting expertise

The new view of expertise has far-reaching implications for the politics and management of science, technology and society. The standard image of expertise caused an externalization of all problems, conflicts and dissent: such problems were not considered part of science, but seen to belong to the outside, non-scientific world. If something went wrong – like a chemical plant explosion or an unaccepted irrigation scheme or a lower yield of a crop than promised – this was due to bad management, wrong political decisions, or unprofitable market conditions. With the new view of expertise, the blame cannot be diverted so easily anymore. When things go wrong now, more fundamental characteristics of society, knowledge (including science) and technology need to be addressed. The cosmology of how we see the world in relation to fundamental sense-giving views will inevitably come into play: one cannot, for example, ignore the deeply religious character of Indian society, even though it combines with a secular consumerism of the middle class.

The different forms of expertise affect all stages of scientific and technological development. This is evident and already generally recognized in the stages of production, implementation and evaluation of scientific and technological knowledge and design. But an earlier stage is at least as important: the stage of problem definition. A problem is not intrinsically and a priori technical or economic or scientific or political. During the stage of definition, the problem is given its key characteristics, depending on how the relevant forms of expertise play out. And once a problem has received its main characteristics, these will also determine which types of expertise can best contribute.

Examples abound of how civil society groups have reconstituted expertise and continue to offer informed choices to communities in areas such as sustainable agriculture, water and energy.

In the final chapter of this Manifesto, an example is presented of a Dutch societal dialogue that shows that interactional expertise exists among a wide range of non-scientists, or can be acquired when considered necessary. With such interactional expertise a substantive part of the Dutch citizenry was engaged in dialogue about nanotechnology in its earliest stages of development. It generated a people’s agenda for nanotechnology, and it probably helped to embed nanoscience more firmly in Dutch society.

Implications of this new view of expertise

Accepting this new view on expertise has far-reaching implications for an Indian Science and Technology Manifesto.

The first issue is to recognize that science and technology play crucial roles in relation to violence and inequity. They cause violence and inequity—sometimes as the result of strategic use of power to oppress the less powerful and to control the marginalized, sometimes as unintended side-effects, and sometimes as inevitable consequences of the very character of that science and technology. Science and technology are also called upon to harness violence, to provide alternate forms of non-violent intervention, and to redress inequity and lack of justice.

Recognizing not only the existence of a broad spectrum of expertise, but also the roles of science and technology in mitigating violence and inequity, the next question then is: which societal arrangements are needed to make science and technology relevant for the development of India. How is the ownership and management of resources related to commercial markets and democratic governance? To secure a balanced and adequate input of all relevant forms of expertise, new regulatory frameworks need to be developed. In the current dominance of regulatory liberalism and market economy, the state seems to be in retreat. This leaves a gap in balancing the various interests and stakes—a gap that is often occupied by private corporations. New institutional frameworks should better guarantee a balanced input of all forms of relevant expertise. Such frameworks will also pay explicit attention to ethical issues, and in a broader and more explicitly political sense than mere research ethics or medical ethics.

In this chapter the plea for citizens’ participation in the regular science and technology process was explained. This, however, is only a first step towards recognizing the plurality of knowledge systems and the implications for justice and sustainability. The following chapter will make this next step in the argument and outline the need for a new form of knowledge democracy.


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Interrogating Expertise by Florence Piron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.