'Upstream engagement' and new corporate technologies

Upstream engagement' is a type of top-down engagement with ‘the public’, facilitated by academics on behalf of government and the industries involved in the development of new technologies. Beth Lawrence explains why this new method is nothing more than a CSR-like exercise.

Upstream engagement involves deliberative methods such as focus groups, citizen juries and other forums for in-depth discussions concerning new technologies such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and climate geoengineering. It has evolved following the widespread resistance to genetically modified food (GM) in the UK in the early 1990s, and replaces traditional engagement methods, such as opinion polls, which gather data on more immediate opinions.

Groups, such as Demos, an independent think-tank focusing on power and politics, argue that upstream engagement can provide a much-needed 'problematisation of science', admitting that the 'debate' over nanotechnologies has 'learnt' from the GM debate.[1] However, others argue that this engagement is the scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility (CSR): as long as public opinion is on the side of science, fundamental change is not needed.[2]

Engagement aims to create what its facilitators call ‘consensus’ around an issue. However, the upstream engagement assumes that agreement between diverse 'stakeholders' is desirable and possible. In fact the approach has also been described by some social scientists as “a tacit project of social control” and “ideological legitimation via public assimilation.”[3]

On the face of it, it may appear that the ethos behind these exercises is an emphasis on a more active, democratic engagement with society over how technologies are developed, since these technologies have a profound impact on our lives. However, the methods used so far have been inadequate, to say the least, and incapable of achieving this ostensibly noble aim. This is partly due to the small numbers of people, often not representative of broader society, who have been ‘engaged’. But the problems run much deeper.

Such attempts to ‘engage’ have also created a situation where people come to have even less of a say over our technological future, because data gathered about people’s concerns over technologies as part of the studies can be used to market technologies back to us in a way that we may find more acceptable. In addition, the illusion of engagement, whereby people perceive there to be democratic processes in place, make people generally more accepting of these new technologies that are being sold to them.

Upstream engagement is not genuine democratic engagement and has been described as a mechanism by which public trust in new corporate technology is built: “a confidence-building mechanism... between opposing stakeholders.”[4] 'Stakeholders' typically include different interest groups, say corporations and environmental groups, for example the Dupont and Environmental Defense Fund Nanorisk Framework exercise.[5] Upstream engagement is conducted on our behalf with particular interest groups, such as big NGOs, which are supposed to represent the interests of the general public. However, many of these NGOs are either co-opted into the process or treated as 'biased stakeholders’.

In one of Demos' studies,[6] the think-tank concluded that the 'informed public', such as NGOs, were different from the 'normal public'. This analysis not only ignores developments in critical science and technology studies, which have found that the 'public' often do have knowledge about science and technology, but is also designed to dismiss NGOs concerns when they appear to be too radical to engage with.

Engagement conducted by a coalition of academics, the industry and the state, whereby these choose who participates and what happens to the data, excludes certain outcomes before the particular focus group has even started. Social scientist Brian Wynne suggests that institutions have artificially simplified social complexities, within which the risks of technologies are constructed, in order to frame them as quantitative, thereby disallowing criticism of institutions as part of the engagement exercise.[7] For example, how likely is it that one of these facilitated discussions on the possible risks and benefits of nanotechnology will conclude that the financial markets created by nano-enhanced products, now worth billions, if not trillions, should be completely altered by the introduction of compulsory regulations, and that there should be a moratorium on nano-products based on the precautionary principle?

This leads to an important criticism of upstream engagement. The approach is called 'upstream' because it is supposed to engage with people at an early stage in the development of the technology. However, in practice, this is by no means the case. Studies are usually carried out at the stage where a new technology, or a scientific development that has significant implications for future technological applications, is about to become public knowledge and launched into the market and public sphere. For example, there was a public engagement exercise conducted on synthetic biology in 2010.[8] The results were released just as Craig Venter and his team announced that they had produced ‘synthetic life’ on behalf of ExxonMobil.[9] Another example is the case of nanotechnology, where the industry was already booming around 2005 when engagement exercises were just starting to be conducted.

In cases where people are engaged early in the development of a technology, other problems arise, because then there will be a serious imbalance of power. Since little information would have been available to the participants before the exercise, the 'public' will have to trust the 'experts' and what they say about the technology.

Yet, upstream engagement is useful to corporations and the state because it enables them to predict what concerns people may have, and then tailor their marketing of products or whole technologies to suit those concerns. For example, instead of branding a product on its new nano-capabilities, perhaps the advertising could be more subtle and list the ingredients so that it is not immediately obvious that the product contains nanoparticles. Or, to take another example, synthetically produced algae, which can be used to produce agrofuels, may be pushed in such a way that the synthetic biology aspect is outshadowed by concerns over needing to act on climate change.

A public dialogue on climate geoengineering was conducted in 2010.[10] There is a further engagement project being conducted at present by academics on geoengineering techniques. However, as more money goes into research on how acceptable people find different geoengineering methods, less money and effort goes into developing methods to mitigate climate change.[11] The first study did not find any participants criticising geoengineering in general and aimed to “assess public opinion on how future research relating to the subject should be directed, conducted and communicated.”[12] This basically means that there was no real option to say that the research should not be conducted at all. In other words, the framing of these studies is inherently value-laden and there is no indication that engagement methods have adapted in response to suggestions being made by critical academics for some time now. This inflexibility highlights upstream engagement's relatively set role in the institutionalisation of participation and the management and monitoring of people's views by those with economic and political power.

Even if some engagement exercises were conducted with the best of intentions and took on board some of the criticisms directed at earlier methods, it is unlikely that the results of these exercises can feed into the development of technologies in a any meaningful way due to broader power relations. The ETC Group propose three approaches to technology governance: techno-optimism (technology is good, we just need to be responsible); techno-realism, such as upstream engagement (technology is neutral, we just need more opinions); and techno-scepticism (technology is political, we need a society where everyone has a genuine say).[13] Techno-scepticism is the only approach that takes power relations into account. Upstream engagement does not enable the public to choose which technologies are developed, because intellectual property rules ensure that business knowledge remains inaccessible.[14] In other words, it does not enable any say over who should own and control technologies.

It has been suggested that science is one of the social institutions most resistant to popular participation and control.[15] However, resistance to new technologies, be it direct resistance, such as the pulling up of GM crops, or calling for moratoriums on technologies whilst educating people about the issues, a method favoured by The ETC Group, or targeting particular companies and developing decentralised, green alternatives, seem much more likely to enable a democratic technological future than any form of upstream engagement may ever provide.


Read more about corporate control of technology on Corporate Watch's new Corporate Rule website at http://corporate-rule.co.uk/drupal/technology

[1] J. Wilsdon, B. Wynne and J. Stilgoe, The Public Value of Science.

Demos, 2005.

[2] Helen Jackson Upstream Engagement in Science, Technology and Society: The Case of Nanotechnology. 2006, online: http://corporate-rule.co.uk/drupal/node/248.
[3] B. Wynne, 'Public Understanding of Science', in Jasanoff et al., Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, London: Sage, 1995. pp. 361–388.

[4] www.law.gwu.edu/Academics/FocusAreas/Environmental/Documents/Spring%202011%20Conference%20Presentations/Marchant.pdf
[5] http://nanoriskframework.com/page.cfm?tagID=1095
[6] M. Kearnes, P. Macnaghten and J. Wilsdon, 'Governing at the

Nanoscale: Demos'. 2006, online: www.corporate-rule.co.uk/drupal/node/168.
[7] B. Wynne, 'Risk and Social Learning: Reification to Engagement' in

Krimsky (ed.) Social Theories of Risk. London: Praeger, 1992. pp. 275–297.

[8] www.synbiostandards.co.uk/activity.php?id=3
[9] www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=3619
[10] www.nerc.ac.uk/about/consult/geoengineering.asp
[11] See, for example, www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/15/ipcc-geo-engineering-climate
[12] www.nerc.ac.uk/about/consult/geoengineering.asp
[13] Etc Group, NanoGeoPolitics: Etc Group Surveys the Political Lanscape.

Etc Group, 2005. www.etcgroup.org.
[14] S. E. Cozzens and E. J. Woodhouse, 'Science, Government and the Politics

of Knowledge' in Jasanoff et al. (eds.), Hanbook, ibdi., pp. 533–553.

[15] B. Martin, 'Anarchist Science Policy', The Raven, no. 7, 1994.