Soapbox Post

It has been a few days since I returned from the IHEST meeting (see Blogging from France posts). Upon reflection, I realize that it was a number of firsts for me. It was the first time a foreign government invited me to speak. And it was the first time I was translated in real time during a talk. But the thing that stands out most in my mind is that it is the first time I’ve ever spoken to an audience largely comprised of government officials.


When I first heard that the event was being called a summer school, I thought it was very much a misnomer. I’ve been to European summer schools before. Typically, they are arranged by faculty to give graduate students from around the continent a chance to learn from experts in the field. These gatherings help to make up for the fact that few universities have a critical mass of faculty in topics as specific as Science and Technology Studies by giving students a chance to get to know more experts in the field. But IHEST didn’t invite graduate students, so how could this be a summer school?


Once I got to Saline Royale, I began to understand why they didn’t call it a conference, workshop or symposium. The majority of the participants were not there to give talks. They were government officials from across the country who went on this retreat to learn about and reflect on the role of the public in science policy decisions. The participants were as varied as people who helped to organize the local French nano debates to environmental regulators. And, just like graduate students pursuing degrees, they worked hard. After a full day of listening to talks and questioning presenters, they had break out sections to further discuss what they had learned well into the night, only to be called on early the next morning to report back their findings.


It was somewhat refreshing talking to policymakers instead of academics. The questions asked were noticeably different from what I am used to. There was no quibbling over the specific use of a piece of jargon. Instead, the questioners were more interested in the details about how various organizations responded to issues. In essence, they were looking to learn from the experience of others about how to better handle the issues they face in their daily work. I tried to adjust my talk accordingly, yet I doubt that I said anything so memorable that it will have an observable effect on French policy.  But it is satisfying to think that I played a role in a mechanism designed to bridge the gap between government and academia. The summer school was sort of an extension service for science policy.


Sitting at my desk in Arizona, I lament the fact that I had to fly all the way to France to meet with so many policymakers. Why don’t events like this happen in the United States more often? Maybe the French technocratic inclinations have something to do with it? Perhaps I’m being a bit shortsighted. The truth is that we do have a number of mechanisms in the United States that bring academics and government officials together, including hearings, advisory boards and short-term government appointments for faculty. But it was inspiring to have a group of academics and policymakers get together for a short retreat to discuss some of today’s pressing issues.



About the Author:  Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change.


[more Blogging from France posts]
Sep 8, 2010 @ 6:32am
Hey J,

Nice post. I wonder if part of the difference is that in the US, "science policy experts" are generally scientists, engineers, economists, and businesspeople, and on occasion, bioethicists. Not STS-types. By contrast, I think that there is generally greater openness to STS-type ideas in Europe. At the very least, the complex relationships between science, technology, and society seem to be more accepted.

Another explanation, of course, is that given the recent controversies over S&T in Europe, there is less "trust" in the institutions charged with regulation. Therefore, those institutions are more open to new ideas. By contrast, US S&T controversies have not really affected the legitimacy of these same institutions.

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