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Democratising science

A continuing challenge today
Miquel Domènech
Traduction de Bernadette Goth
Cet article est une traduction de :
Democratizar la ciencia [es]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Démocratiser la science [fr]


With knowledge societies, the role of expert knowledge has grown to cover all areas of social life. When it affects deliberative processes and political decision-making, this role questions the quality and nature of contemporary democratic systems owing to the distance it sets up between citizenship and public matters. The demand for a democratisation of science has been one of the most frequently proposed responses to this problem in science and technology studies since the start of the 21st century. This challenge is still on-going, mainly due to the fact that it has been addressed through conceptions of science and politics that have turned it into a difficult-to-achieve if not impossible objective. While recognising that the relevance of this challenge has never been doubted, this article puts forward a number of suggestions as to what topics and questions might be dealt with for this project to democratise science to make sense for our discipline.

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1The aspiration to democratise science is already an old one. While, at the start of the 21st century, it is a particularly well-felt claim, it actually emerged through processes and situations that began in the 20th century and which concern what is referred to as the “knowledge society”. The changes having led to the increasingly consolidated dominant role of knowledge in our societies have radically transformed the conditions for taking part in public and political life. One of the main changes concerns the growing role of expert knowledge, mainly because of the intervention of scientists and technicians in deliberating processes and political decision-making. This has raised concern and stirred our thinking about the quality and nature of contemporary democratic systems (Callon, Lascoumes & Barthe, 2001; Marres, 2007). The public controversies fuelling political life have been increasingly linked to the calling in of experts. Many examples illustrating this fact can be cited, some of which are very common such as the “mad cow” crisis or the controversial debates about atomic energy. In many cases, the outcome of bringing in experts is that citizens are removed from decision-making processes and no longer participate in public life (Domènech et al., 2002; Aceros & Domènech, 2010). Since the general public neither has the knowledge nor the resources needed to acquire it, it can hardly ensure that its voice is heard in the process of developing and implementing various types of policy. Hence, policy-making runs the risk of being too extensively determined by the contributions of experts.

2Science and technology studies have turned their attention to this problem and have witnessed an intense and in-depth debate about the controversial role of experts in contemporary societies over the past few years. The Revue d’Anthropologie des connaissances (RAC) published an excellent report on this subject in 2013, in volume 7, number 1, entitled “Towards pragmatic, ecological and political approaches to expertise”. This report reminded us that in our field of research expertise often becomes politics via other means and that, in this case, research cannot be seen as neutral or apolitical but, on the contrary, as adhering to the preferences of those able to determine the political agenda (Jasanoff, 2003). And we are not referring to isolated events. This is evident in the excellent work of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2010), who underline the decisive role of several eminent scientists able to scupper the public’s understanding of the most diverse scientific facts in order to promote specific political and economic agendas.

3Decisions taken about complex and uncertain risks are of particular concern insofar as the political response is addressed technocratically, more so than in other fields. Such cases underline the importance given to scientific analyses and expert opinions while other forms of knowledge are undervalued or ignored. The value of science in decisions is overestimated whereas the values and interests of the experts consulted are hidden by quantitative models and other accessories (Tickner & Wright, 2003). There are many cases that can be cited to document the tendency of experts to do without local knowledge. Brian Wynne (1996) showed the extent to which the consequences of such practices can become disastrous.

4Taking into account this “basing of democracy on expertise”, democratising expertise has been one of the most common approaches to the democratisation of science, to the extent that the ability to become democratised has become a crucial component for the future of experts’ practices (Lascoumes, 2002). Or in other terms, and as Pierre Lascoumes puts it (2002), expertise must be plural if it is to be at all; there is no other means of integrating the layperson. Having said that, the fact that the challenge underlying the democratisation of expertise is being taken seriously does not mean it is an easy or even possible task. Thus, before embarking on this enterprise, we need to ask whether democracy and expertise are based on compatible logic. As emphasised by Angela Liberatore and Silvio Funtowicz (2003), if democracy is considered as a simple exercise in collating the preferences of the majority through a vote and expertise a self-referencing system in which only fellow colleagues are invited to participate, democratising expertise is a contradiction in terms.

5Whatever the case, the debate on the relationship between expertise and democracy most certainly entails some interesting questions. These need to be taken into account, as underlined in the RAC:

From this debate, we shall bear in mind the advantages of evaluating more closely the practices and the effective dynamics of dialogical technical democracy (hybrid forum model), as well as the reality of the crumbling or reconstruction of boundaries between scholars and laypersons on the one hand, and between public authorities and civil society on the other. Just how far have expert committees and arenas, in which decisions are taken for the sake of society as a whole, modified their procedures and their composition to represent the diversity of their stakeholders? This is a matter of delivering an account of the situated work of “experts” (specialists as much as the representatives chosen to deliver expertise in the name of various interest groups) in political spaces of expertise. (Barbier et al., 2013: h)

6However, with respect to the challenge put forward by the RAC to its Scientific Council, the proposal I wish to make here is to push beyond the democratisation of expertise as the solution to the problem of the democratisation of science. Fundamentally, what I am putting forward as a research programme is to make a more in-depth study of the proposals aiming to examine what we understand by science and what we understand by democracy. And I think that, in both cases, it is not only from the point of view of science that science and technology studies have something to contribute. In what follows, I shall attempt to describe my proposed outline for a new programme able to democratise science and democracy itself once and for all.

7I shall begin by explaining the angle to be adopted for undertaking this revision of the idea of science. The trail has already been well plotted by Bruno Latour throughout his work, although I would like here to consider his 2004 text. Latour (2004) starts with a very relevant observation for our discussion: the mission of science has always been linked to understanding reality by establishing indisputable matters of fact. If we do not question this then the democratisation of science is indeed a pipe dream. And this allows scientists, free of all political suspicion, to authoritatively assert without blushing that science is not democratic. I still remember the circumstances in which a famous biologist assured me of the very same thing during a debate. The arguments are familiar to all: “the law of gravity does not vote; this has been demonstrated.”

8It is true that science and technology studies, in particular when focusing on social constructivism, have made a decisive contribution to the implementation of scientific certainty. According to social constructivists, and in echo of something I once heard said to one of the champions of this movement, facts are like cows; if you look them in the eyes they run away. However, as Latour reminds us, the answer to this was to blindly accept what matters of fact are and to adhere too closely to Kantian philosophy. Yet, what happens if reality is not only defined by matters of fact and we take these to be only part of reality? And if, instead of trying to dismantle them as such, we focus on everything that makes up reality and can be extracted from reality? When all is said and done, what happens if we resist the “bifurcation of nature” that Alfred Whitehead talked about? Moreover, if we focus on matters of fact we cannot fail to ignore matters of concern. In doing so, the facts take on a whole different dimension. As Isabelle Stengers (1994) reminds us, commenting on the “Whitehead effect”, we can assume that the “fact does not tell us ‘how’ it should be taken into account; it simply demands to be taken into account” (p. 11). Maybe it takes to its heel just like a cow but, as with cows, we cannot help but take it into account, just in case…

9The notion of matters of concern represents an overruling of the notion of interest as a de-objectifying device and contributes to improving argumentation. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa explains this well:

By contrast with ‘interest’ –a previously prevalent notion in the staging of forces, desires and the politics sustaining the ‘fabrication’ and ‘stabilization’ of matters of fact– ‘concern’ alters the affective charge of the thinking and presentation of things with connotations of trouble, worry and care. (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2010: 89)

10Indeed, matters of concern is linked to matters of care but the latter channels strong emotional and ethical implications, with the care implying attention and concern for those who can be affected by a scientific decision and whose voices are less valued. Thus, Puig de la Bellacasa underlines the necessity to also take on board the importance of care when reviewing thinking about science and its role.

11At this stage, it is appropriate to examine the other formulation outlined above, i.e. that relating to democracy. To do this, the contribution of Jacques Rancière (2000), who makes it the condition for political possibility, is useful. This requires us lending a strong signification to the word democracy, and not the time-worn assertion of “government of the people by the people for the people”. In these conditions, and in the absence of a legitimisation principle for the government of a specific group, the only remaining possibility is to politically decide who should govern. With this premise, it is clear that democracy would be seriously threatened by a science conceived of according to the self-referencing model we talked about previously and which would be incompatible with any science. The temptation to use science to cancel out politics has proved too often irresistible. Here lies the challenge; once again so well defined by Latour:

How to conceive of a democracy that does not live under the constant threat of back-up from science?. (Latour, 1999: 32)

12The most interesting response to this, from my point of view, is suggested by Stengers with her notion of cosmopolitics. I cannot insist too much on this point but I am going to briefly outline a number of questions that turn this concept into something that is particularly useful for thinking about the relationship between science and democracy.

13In my opinion, several virtues can be attributed to the notion of cosmopolitics. The first is the idea of conceiving of a political form that does not rely on the separation of non-humans from human affairs:

…we are under the influence of the invention of a different way of doing politics, one that integrates what the city separated: human affairs (praxis) and the management-production of things (techné). (Stengers, 2000: 162)

14However, the “cosmos” referred to in the word “cosmopolitics” has nothing to do with any kind of cosmos-wide project covering all possible versions and acting as a common reference, an objective background to oppose the subjective human discussions specific to politics. Before being a rally point, the cosmos in cosmopolitics designates a space where there is doubt and uncertainty, a space for discussions before consensus, for controversy before agreement (Stengers, 1997a).

15The second virtue is the idea of reconciling science and democracy by imposing the same requirement on them:

Democracy and rationality thus converge towards the same requirement: the invention of devices that give rise to, foster and fuel the possibility for citizens to be interested in knowledge claiming to guide and build their future, devices which require this knowledge to be exposed and, in the choices they make and in their relevance, their priority questions and the ones they ignore to be put at risk. (Stengers, 1997b: 108)

16Finally, the third virtue assumes that experts can be replaced by diplomats as a means of integrating the care referred to earlier:

I suggest first distinguishing the figure of the expert and that of the diplomat. Experts are the ones whose practice is not threatened by the issue under discussion since what they know is accepted as relevant. Their role will require them to present themselves and to present what they know, in a mode that does not foresee the way in which that knowledge will be taken into account. By contrast, diplomats are there to provide a voice for those whose practice, whose mode of existence and whose identity is threatened by a decision. ‘If you decide that, you’ll destroy us’. Diplomats’ role is therefore above all to remove the anaesthesia produced by the reference to progress or the general interest, to give a voice to those who define themselves as threatened, in a way likely to cause the experts to have second thoughts and to force them to think about the possibility that their favourite course of action may be an act of war. (Stengers, 2005: 1002-1003)

17I think that the RAC has included contributions that raise a good many of the questions I have put forward in my own arguments and which I hope will deepen this discussion about the democratisation of science. What follows may not be an exhaustive list but I would like to underline three emerging areas of interest that I find especially relevant.

18To begin with, I am going to talk about what has been called the “third sector of knowledge”. This covers the experience of producing and using knowledge that is difficult to place in relation to the public-private or academic-militant categories. This knowledge is developed at the periphery of market and State. It corresponds to diverse experiences, albeit often linked, such as fab labs, living labs, hack labs, makerspaces, science shops and even free seed banks. As Évelyne Lhoste and Marc Barbier (2016) underline with respect to fab labs, these are collective and distributed forms of open innovation experimentation, which means that they are the ideal places for rethinking the relationship between science and society. Furthermore, according to these authors, the openness of these spaces makes them the living physical fulfilment of the promise of knowledge democratisation. The authors argue that they are “third places”. And this seems to be a prerequisite condition for the democratisation of science, which aims to move out of the traditional spaces used to produce knowledge.

19I am going to continue with health management and its role in the contemporary dynamics of biopower. At a time marked by the fear of global epidemics and the obsession for biosecurity, discussions can lead to paradoxical situations in which the need for reliable knowledge is asserted while at the same time such knowledge is condemned for its intrinsic social nature:

Although the production of health expertise inevitably remains a social process, enmeshed in the organisational constraints and power dynamics that characterise any human activity, pathways and equilibriums are required through which it can produce, legitimate and put into use, under tough time constraints, knowledge that can reasonably be declared ‘minimally biased. (Forster & Charnoz, 2013: x)

20Finally, it has to be said that much is still to be done in order to develop the notion of cosmopolitics and turn it into a useful tool for analysing not only the relationship between science and democracy but also the knowledge society as a whole. In this respect, proposals such as that of Martin Tironi and Matias Valderrama (2016) in the RAC represent substantial progress in this direction, which is worth taking into account.

21Whatever the case, I believe that the question of science democratisation remains an open one. Up until now the debate has been interesting and the intensity with which science and technology studies have approached it is such that, as underlined by Darrin Durant (2011), they can be considered as political theory. If the challenge were to be fulfilled according to the points I have underlined, then science and technology studies would be making more than a significant contribution, one that would also serve contemporary political thinking.

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Miquel Domènech, « Democratising science »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 11-2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 04 avril 2020. URL :

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Miquel Domènech

Professor of social psychology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he coordinates the Barcelona STS study group (STS-b) and is a member of the Council of the European Association for the Studies of Science and Technology (EASST). His research interests are in science and technology studies, with a particular focus on questions relating to the use of technology in care processes and citizens’ participation in technical and scientific questions.

Adress: Departament de Psicologia Social, Edifici B, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, ES-08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanyola del Vallès), Spain.
E-mail: miquel.domenech[at]

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