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Point of View : Sep 15, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 16)

Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States

Designs on Nature

In May 2003, the U.S. and several cooperating countries filed a case at the World Trade Organization against the European Unions illegal, non-science-based moratorium on biotech food and crops, which was harmful to agriculture and the developing world.

In July of the same year the EU announced new regulations on the labeling and traceability of foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, claiming that European consumers now had a transparent, reliable means of choosing between alternative sources of food.

Nevertheless, in August, the U.S. called for a WTO dispute-settlement panel to address the GMO issue. David Byrne, the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, deplored the action, stating, Only a month ago we updated our regulatory system on GMOs in line with the latest scientific and international developments. Clear labelling and traceability rules are essential to help restore consumer confidence in GMOs in Europe.

Clearly, the global march of biotechnology had not brought policy convergence in its wake. Here were two of the worlds economic superpowers disagreeing not only about whether and how to promote biotechnology in agriculture, but, even more astoundingly, about what counts as science for regulatory purposes and how science should be deployed in controlling biotechnology.

The roots of disagreement run deep. They were planted, in the 1980s, with divergent framings of the risks of biotechnology in the United States, the EU, and the EU member states. Scientific accounts of the risks of biotechnology became enmeshed with political practices at that time through a process of co-production.

This approach to thinking about the unfolding of science and technology in society stresses how knowledge about the world both conditions and is conditioned by prior choices about how people wish to govern themselves.

Attempts to manage developments in the life sciences and technologies required the manufacture or redesign of politically significant institutions, identities, representations, and discourses. Political practices and even ideas of nationhood were renegotiated together with new biological concepts and constructs.

Framing of Biotech

Three distinct framings of biotechnology emerged in the U.S., Britain, and Germanyas product, process, and program, respectivelyand each rested on its own scientific, administrative, legal, and political supports.

The product-based approach took hold in the U.S., where it went hand-in-hand with a scientific account of genetic engineering as a highly specific intervention, grounded in molecular biology, promising untold benefits, and entailing negligible adverse consequences for human health and the environment.

Britain and the EU, by contrast, adopted a process-based approach, which brought together more ecologically oriented expert perspectives with a policy posture that admitted more uncertainties and called for a precautionary approach to regulation.

Germany took caution one step further by highlighting political and ethical, as well as scientific, unknownsin particular, the possibility of a programmatic alliance between science and the state that might lead to abuses of power unless the risks of biotechnology were tightly controlled.

The framing of biotechnology as a stream of commercial products was most readily accepted in the U.S., where, in areas other than national security, the market often out-competes the state as a model of legitimate social organization.

A preference for market solutions as an alternative to state control grew during the 1980s, as the deregulatory fervor of the Reagan era began to influence administrative practices. With the downfall of communism and the end of history, the ideology of the market gained additional force.

Pro-market and antiregulatory tendencies manifested themselves across the entire range of governmental action on biotechnology, from the failure to enact comprehensive federal legislation in the 1970s to the relative laxity of regulation in the 1980s, and from the permissive patenting decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty to the facilitation of university-industry technology transfer through the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act.

At the same time, a chronic aversion toward incurring opportunity costs, expressed through a laissez faire policy toward private initiative and risk-taking, significantly lowered the threshold barriers to biotechnological innovation.

Policy in Britain

In Britain, by contrast, a proactive state policy toward biotechnology, endorsed by the Tories under John Major and enthusiastically embraced by Tony Blairs Labour government, had to contend with a sharply divided public response.

On the one hand, a relatively uncontested, science-friendly legal regime developed around research on embryos and embryonic stem cells, and numerous collaborations arose between university scientists and pharmaceutical companies.

On the other hand, in the wake of the mad cow crisis, agricultural biotechnology suffered from a severe backlash against the paternalistic nanny state, necessitating nationwide political consultation.

In each case the legitimacy of British policy turned on whether governmental experts could satisfy demands for proofs and arguments that the public found persuasive. Developments in both areas illustrate the long-term persistence in Britain of framing biotechnology as a process different from other methods of manipulating nature.

Germany, too, adopted the process frame along with Britain and the EU, acknowledging that genetic modification calls for special oversight in all its domains of application. But taming the risks of biotechnology in Germany proceeded in tandem with taming recalcitrant historical and political memories, before and after the fall of communism in 1989 and the reunification of the divided state in October 1990.

Key to the resolution of early political debates around biotechnology was the reaffirmation of Germany as a Rechtsstaat, a place where the rule of law enjoys supreme respect.

This construction of the German state demands principled behavior on the part of government and strict adherence to basic constitutional norms such as respect for human dignity.

Relations between science, technology, and the state as played out in this context readily assumed a programmatic character. Regulatory debates were, in effect, staging grounds for continuing struggles over the definition of postwar German identity.

EU Politics

The politics of biotechnology at the EU was subordinate in key respects to that of its member states. Questions about the acceptability of biotechnologys products and the allowable forms of debate concerning them remained national in character. Yet to omit the EU political scene would be to miss an important element of the turn-of-the-century politics of globalization.

Through its regulation on deliberate release and its enactments on labeling and traceability of GM foods, the EU carved out a space for co-existence that applied literally to GM and non-GM products, but also metaphorically to different judgments by member states about the suitability of GM products for their national farms and tables.

The U.S.-EU conflict in the WTO can be seen against this backdrop not simply as a battle over free trade, but also over alternative models of co-existence in a politically heterogeneous world.

Making peace with biotechnology was not, in any of the three countries, simply a matter of applying old political routines to new agendas, nor was it a case of creaky political institutions playing catch-up with rapid developments in science and technology.

Through their attempts to accommodate biotechnology, each political system tested, and to some extent reconstituted, its core understanding of what is political about science and technology. In this sense the politics of biotechnology proved to be constitutive of democratic politics writ large.