Surfing the FSC

Javier Lezaun
Institute for Science, Innovation and Society
Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Since its foundation in 2000, the OECD NEA RWMC’s “Forum on Stakeholder Confidence” (FSC) has had constructive dialogues and interactions with hundreds of interested parties in radioactive waste management, ranging from specialists and academic researchers to national and local politicians to local stakeholders and associations. Many of those partners came to Paris in September 2010 to participate in the colloquium “Looking Back, Looking Forward in Stakeholder Engagement”. Not only this 10-year Anniversary Colloquium, but also the FSC’s eleventh Regular Meeting of two further days was opened as well to all interested parties.

Part of the 10-year Anniversary Colloquium was devoted to evaluating the FSC’s actions. We asked an Oxford lecturer in Science and Technology Governance – previously unacquainted with our work – to “surf the FSC”. That is, we asked him to look at the full set of publications that we make available on our homepage. Javier Lezaun tells below what he learned from this first contact. He highlights the experimental, engaged nature of the FSC, and the particular policy lessons that can serve beyond the domain of radioactive waste management.

The FSC: an experiment in public engagement

Designing a process for stakeholder consultation on the long-term management of radioactive waste presents a number of obvious intellectual and institutional challenges, and offers an interesting counterpoint to the models for public engagement that have been developed over the last two decades to strengthen the social legitimacy of ‘emerging technologies’ (e.g., biotechnology, nanotechnology).
Public engagement processes on ‘emerging technologies’ represent an effort to turn the open-ended nature of scientific and technological change into an object of public deliberation and decision – offering venues to articulate arguments regarding social and technoscientific options before particular paths of progress have become entrenched and obdurate. To a curious observer, the involvement of stakeholders in decisions over radioactive waste disposal has a very different starting point, and entails a different set of constraints. Here, decisions with long-term implications must be made, today, to deal with the consequences of commitments that were made in the past, and which often emerged out of a policy process that did not grant the same kind of role (or voice) to concerned publics.

Thus it is not surprising that the body of work produced by the Forum on Stakeholder Confidence (FSC) over the last ten years leaves an external observer with an overwhelming impression of intellectual and political experimentation. There is, in the aggregate of the FSC’s literary corpus, a clear attempt to develop new concepts and frameworks, to deal with issues deserving of politically nuanced consideration, attentive to the long term.

A purposefully open definition of ‘Stakeholder’

This experimentation begins with the definition of ‘stakeholder’: any actor – institution, group or individual – with an interest or with a role to play in the process’. It is difficult to think of a more purposefully open definition of who the relevant actors are. This openness is, in my view, a key achievement and asset in devising new, more democratic and accountable processes to deal with a reality where many courses of action have already been closed or preempted by the very presence of the waste. In the field of ‘emerging technologies’, to offer a contrast, most deliberative exercises begin (and often end) by deciding and narrowing down the field of relevant actors. Perhaps this is because there the immaterial or promissory aspects of the technologies under discussion introduce enough contingency already – the open-ended nature of technoscientific change is compensated by developing a rather rigid version of society.

Coming to terms with the need for Reversibility and Adjustability of Decisions

A second area of experimentation in the work of the FSC concerns the concept of reversibility and its operationalisation. Here the Forum draws on the fact that radioactive waste generates long-term obligations – on the inescapable need to establish rules and commitments that could last centuries – to reflect on the political valence of the future. We need to create an approach, the FSC writes, ‘that provides sufficient time for developing both competence and fairness’ – or, rather (I would argue), that extends competence and fairness over a long period of time.

The FSC’s focus on the durability of the relations that need to emerge between different categories of stakeholders, derives from the realization that the future will not be linear or predictable, that the future is not ours to decide upon, and that a mechanism must be found to allow future stakeholders – stakeholders that have not yet arrived and that we cannot fully imagine – to give their consent to the decisions we must make today.

There is obviously no easy (or definitive!) solution to this conundrum. The FSC has set its sights on the development of a ‘stepwise approach’, one ‘composed of incremental steps that are to some extent adjustable’. Highlighting the relevance of adjustability and reversibility, and coming to terms with the policy implications of such contextual relevance, is, in my opinion, one of the key contributions of the Forum, not just to the political management of radioactive waste, but to our thinking about the governance of science and technology more generally.

Reconnecting technology policy to political reality – Lessons for the long term

The lessons that can be learned from this process – from the challenges encountered by the FSC over the last decade and from the outputs of its work – should reach beyond the confines of the radioactive waste community and its policy needs. In fact, one of the implications of the reflection carried out in the context of the FSC is the impossibility of political containment. ‘Radioactive waste’ is not a discrete entity; any sustainable process of deliberation and decision-making is forced to re-connect the issue of waste with a range of social, environmental, energy and economic issues – indeed, with all the ‘matters of concern’ raised by the stakeholders that a robust consultation process discovers and engenders.

It may be outside the remit (and resources) of the FSC to carry out this process of extension, but the lessons drawn from ten years of work can and should be applied by others. One obvious trajectory is the extension of the concepts and principles developed by the FSC to other domains of technology policy, particularly to areas where issues of reversibility and retrievability are paramount.

Another line of work would involve using the rich set of reflections on technological futures to improve our understanding of the technological past and present: if the FSC has been successful in developing a set of metrics and conceptual instruments to assess the durability and robustness of long-term future commitments, what does this model tell us about the legitimacy and sustainability of the decisions that brought us where we are, or about the policy process by which we make decisions today?

Is it possible to maintain an intellectually curious and politically experimental approach to an issue that seems to demand clear-cut decisions and irreversible commitments? This is the fundamental question – a question that the Forum, by its very existence and thanks to the quality of its work, has been able to answer in the affirmative.