Social Science

Jody A. Roberts reviews Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement, edited by Benjamin Cohen and Gwen Ottinger.

By Jody A. Roberts | April 12, 2012

Benjamin Cohen and Gwen Ottinger, Editors. Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 312 pp. $24.00.

In their recent but now famous commentary in Nature (2011) George Whitesides and John Deutch challenged the scientific community—specifically chemists—to become more socially relevant. Subverting the old model where scientists’ pursuit of disinterested research inevitably leads to greater social benefit, Whitesides and Deutch suggest that scientists should focus on meeting the challenges of the day—global warming, energy alternatives, water scarcity—and that this work will itself inevitably lead to the breakthrough foundational work that critics fear will be lost. The article met with an immediate backlash; many in the scientific community bristled instinctually at rethinking current disciplinary boundaries and at the suggestion that “outside” social forces might dictate their research goals. Those opposed to this approach believe that progress in science will stop if scientists no longer have freedom of inquiry.

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Collaborations between citizens and scientists are at the heart of the essays in Technoscience and Environmental Justice.


A new edited volume, Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement, provides important fodder for this debate. Societal needs usually connect to problems looming in our collective social imagination: global warming and climate change, energy, water resources. Rarely do we think of these issues in terms of science promoting justice. Yet in the realm of social and environmental justice there exist numerous studies supporting Whitesides and Deutch’s case: science can first be about need and still yield foundational work. Or, as volume editors Gwen Ottinger and Benjamin Cohen argue, for the past 30 years interactions with the environmental-justice movement have been fundamentally transforming the practices of science and engineering. The editors’ argument rests on the principle that science, as a dynamic social institution, is always in a state of flux: it keeps evolving in both its fundamental principles and its everyday practices. From this understanding they suggest (and their contributors confirm in their case studies) that science will evolve in response to the conditions of its environment. If that environment happens to be the U.S. Department of Defense, a certain kind of science will emerge. If that environment is one of citizens demanding knowledge about their communities, an entirely different science will result. The cases presented in the volume demonstrate the ways in which scientists’ interactions with a range of concerned groups—groups that demand a different kind of knowledge—have given rise to new instruments, new analytical tools, and entirely new scientific fields of inquiry.

Until now few scholars have explored the ways in which scientific experts work directly with communities and what these interactions mean for the identities—professional and personal—of the researchers or what the results of these interactions could mean for transforming the sciences. In Technoscience and Environmental Justice the editors and authors provide a much-needed (and inspiring) corrective to this deficit of attention while also providing empirical evidence buoying the arguments made by Whitesides and Deutch.

Authors in the volume focus on three areas of interactions between scientists and civil society that have produced sometimes radical shifts in the practices of science and at times transitions to new fields of science. For example, a chapter on the emergence and use of human biomonitoring (which allows researchers to determine levels of exposure on a personal, individual level) examines the ways in which both scientists and civil-society groups continually pushed the envelope of exposure science by asking new questions, developing new analytical techniques, and working to translate data between citizens and scientists. Collaboration is at the core of this work. In the Bay Area collaborations between scientists, lawyers, and community residents formed the backbone of an organization committed to forcing action on dioxin (Karen Hoffman’s chapter). Dean Nieusma highlights the ways in which engineers and community members in Sri Lanka developed energy systems that take into account local physical and social environments. And Raoul S. Liévanos, Jonathan K. London, and Julie Sze examine the “street science” conducted in California’s San Joaquin Valley to fight pesticide drift. These collaborations resulted in accelerating, reshaping, or giving rise to entirely new sciences.

The resistance to Deutch and Whitesides’ commentary likely results from both institutional inertia and a belief that our current technical infrastructure (educational, funding, research agendas) has never changed and can never change. Technoscience and Environmental Justice helps demonstrate that our scientific practices are always changing and can be brought into useful alignment with citizens and society while still contributing to the development of a more robust scientific understanding of the world.