Why Talk Risk?

J.R.Bruning’s Substack focusses on the need for functioning, messy, deliberative, interdisciplinary democratic environments to help civil society identify and steward risk from science and technology.

Deliberative democratic environments are critical - because the safe space where technology and pollution meets a human being or ecosystem is never clearly defined. Risk governance requires that we navigate complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. Autocracies and directive regimes don’t provide a wide enough berth for the production of uncomfortable knowledge that is required for stewardship of civil society and the protection of human and environmental health.

As science and technology has sped up in the past 50 years - the government policy and resourcing committment required to ensure a safe space for critical science and research work has stagnated.

This has produced extensive knowledge gaps. The public find themselves presenting to local, regional, state and central governments on issues of technology implementation, release and pollution, yet with limited scientific data - or the scientific representation, officials and policy-makers dismiss their claims. No evidence requires no action. Such processes cannot protect human and environmental health for future generations.

These processes ignore the fact that people are differently at risk, dependending on their age, socioeconomic status, race, locale and diet. Technology can never be ‘one size fits all’.

It is not that scientists do not want to undertake this science and this research. Scientists see the importance of independent analysis of new technologies and possible risk pathways before technology releases. Scientists recognise that the protection of human and environmental health requires more than simple monitoring of emissions - but the analysis of additive and synergistic risks to humans and ecosystems and then policies in place which have regulatory teeth - that stop the continued harm.

However the funding pathways for long term research and science are not there. Funding is too short term, too hypercompetitive, and too captured by policy scopes set in place by elected members and officials. Underfunded environments directly benefit (private and public) institutions who wish to release/authorise new technologies for financial or political gain.

Science funding privileges the production of innovative goods and services - the production of new technologies - not science for stewardship of health.

But in deliberative, functioning democracies, science and tech development should be only half the story. Stewardship - through information and knowledge - should be the other half of the story.

Because one of the key purposes of democracy and the rule of law, is to ensure public safety - and to ensure the individual is safe.

Furthermore, in a science and knowledge vacuum, Regulators narrowly turned inwards, crafting processes and protocols that year after year, privilege private industry data rather than looking to local information and feedback loops. Where there is uncertainty - this almost inevitably results in delayed action to regulate risky technologies and emissions. What industry data privilege does, is fail to make a safe space for truly paradigm changing technologies that are in the public interest.

Science and technology are heralded as the ‘answer’ to societies problems. But current science technology and research policies can’t claim to support and produce the science and technology to solve humanities problems if there is no safe space to explore, not just the immediate effects, but the off-target and long term risks.

This can only be achieved if there is a safe space to perform the critical analysis of evaluation of safety and risk in a democratically transparent and accountable fashion.

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On democracy, policy & public-interest stewardship of manmade tech



New Zealand based sociologist. Primary research focus concerns regulation of manmade tech in the public interest. Relationship between governance, policy & provenance of scientific & technical knowledge. Twitter @JodieBruning