Alan Irwin


Monday, 11 April 2011, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School

Science and Democracy: questions, challenges and experiments


There is nothing new in the suggestion that there is a basic tension between expertise and democracy. Whilst the logic of one is typically to restrict participation to a relatively small group of specialists, the logic of the other is (generally) to advocate greater openness and participation. However, a number of European countries have been especially active over the last decade or so in enacting ‘social experiments’ in science and public engagement – whether large scale public debates, consensus conferences, or other attempts to ‘engage’ with more diverse public groups. Often, these activities have been followed by a sense of frustration and disappointment that the engagement was too limited or too remote from decision-making. Nevertheless, and especially in such high-profile areas as genetically-modified foods and synthetic biology, institutional efforts have persisted, often with the aim of ‘re-building public trust in science and technology’.

In this presentation, I will attempt to review some recent activities in this area, to consider the arguments both for and against ‘engagement’, and to weigh up the implications. Should public engagement be discarded as a superficial and misguided activity? Or can even limited initiatives suggest new possibilities for scientific democracy?


Alan Irwin has been Dean of Research at Copenhagen Business School since 2007. Previously he was Professor of Science and Technology Policy, and Dean of Social and Environmental Studies, at the University of Liverpool. His PhD is from the University of Manchester and he has held previous appointments at Manchester and at Brunel University (where he was also Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise). Alan chairs the UK BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) Strategy Panel on ‘Bioscience for Society’. He is an Honorary Fellow of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Alan Irwin has published widely on issues of science and technology policy, scientific governance, risk, and science-public relations. His books include Risk and the Control of Technology (1985), Citizen Science (1995), Sociology and the Environment (2001) and (with Mike Michael) Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge (2003). He was also co-editor (with Brian Wynne) of Misunderstanding Science? (1996).