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Opening up the politics of sustainability: reconciling science, participation and power

Examining current debates over sustainable technologies and policies

Current debates over more sustainable technologies and policies are pervaded by apparent tensions between 'sound scientific' and 'participatory' approaches to informing decision making. A range of contending perspectives on public engagement emerge: (1) as an instrumental means to justify particular outcomes or secure greater public trust and acceptance; (2) as a normative matter of democratic legitimacy (alternatively seen as 'political correctness'); or (3) as a substantive challenge concerned with the validation and elaboration of the notion of 'sustainability' itself - and its implications for more 'precautionary' technology choices. In all these modes, strong contrasts are drawn with practices of 'science' and 'evidence based' assessment.

This talk will explore these tensions and draw attention to some of the underlying commonalities between the roles of both science and participation in policy making for sustainability. It will argue that there are some important but neglected practical characteristics of both scientific and participatory approaches to technology and policy appraisal, which cross-cut the usual divides between expert and citizen, quantitative and qualitative, analytic and deliberative. In short, both may be conducted such as alternatively to 'open up' or 'close down' the domain of conditionally-viable options in decision making. Rather than pursuing either 'expert analytic' or 'participatory-deliberative' approaches at the expense of the other, the paper will conclude that greater attention needs to be given in both areas to the aim of 'opening up' the essentially political nature of sustainability. It is only in this way that we can reconcile the essential and demanding imperatives both of scientific rigour and democratic accountability.

Andy Stirling is Science Director of one of world’s leading research centres for science and technology policy research, SPRU. Andy also co-directs the 'STEPS' Centre at Sussex - on 'social, technological and environmental pathways to sustainability'. With a background in natural science and technology policy, he teaches, researches and advises on innovation governance, science policy, public participation, sustainability transitions and technological diversity.


Professor Andrew Stirling | talks | www


Date and Time:

18 November 2008 at 5:00 pm


2 hours



Centre for the Study of Democracy
32-38 Wells Street
5th Floor

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Additional Information:

This event is hosted by the Governance & Sustainability Programme, University of Westminster (London)

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