Public Understanding of Science
22(8) 927 –940
© The Author(s) 2012
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P U S
Scientific citizenship in a
University of Iceland, Iceland
Using the example of the sociological analysis of biological citizenship and literacy, it is argued that a merely
descriptive analysis of these phenomena does not capture their distinctive normative features. While such
a description realistically demonstrates how citizens respond to and are shaped by biotechnology and
biomedical discourse, it provides no critique of the forces moulding the citizen-consumer. Ideas of active
citizenship fuel the search for forms of public engagement in the spirit of deliberative democracy. While
these attempts are guided by an important vision of policy making in democratic society, they are beset
with several practical difficulties. It is argued that the discussion of deliberative practices has focused too
much on direct participation of citizens in various dialogical events and its impact on policy and decision
making. This approach ignores other important aspects of deliberative democratic theory, emphasizing
public accountability and trustworthiness of democratic institutions.
bioethics, biopolitics, governance of science and technology, participation in science policy, public participation,
public understanding of science, scientific citizenship, scientific literacy
There has not been much discussion in philosophical bioethics about what kind of role the citizens
are to play in science and technology. Views that are implicit in the prevailing bioethical discourse
are of a passive population that needs to be protected and/or to be utilized for social benefits
(Árnason, 2009). In social science, on the other hand, there is considerable literature about active
citizen participation in the shaping of public policy about science and technology (Mejlgaard and
Stares, 2010). Some authors (Elam and Bertilsson, 2003) are rather cynical about dominant models
of public engagement since they may reinforce existing power relations. Some of the sociological
literature depicts scientific citizenship in such a way that the distinctive normative nature of citi-
zenship is lost. A good example is Rose and Novas’ (2004) analysis of “biological citizenship”
which is largely framed in a discourse of production and marketing strategies. While this analysis
Vilhjálmur Árnason, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of History and Philosophy and Centre for Ethics, School of
Humanities, University of Iceland, IS-101 Reykjavík, Iceland.
22810.1177/0963662512449598ÁrnasonPublic Understanding of Science
928 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
is in many ways realistic, it is important to counteract it critically by a guiding vision of citizenship.
This is implied in theories of deliberative democracy which have influenced several attempts to
engage citizens in dialogues about public policy. Sociological studies (e.g. Irwin, 2001) have
shown that these attempts meet many practical difficulties and they can also lead to premature
justification of emerging technology. A neglected aspect of deliberative democratic theory in this
context is its emphasis on legitimacy and accountability of public decisions. This implies that the
focus needs to be more on the quality of the institutions and governance as conditions for demo-
cratic legitimacy than on active participation or pervasive public engagement.
The paper is divided into three parts. The first part is devoted to a discussion of Rose and Novas’
notion of biological citizenship which exemplifies a rich sociological analysis of how develop-
ments in biotechnology are shaping contemporary citizens. Their description is critically evaluated
and it is argued that it ignores a normative dimension implicit in the notions of scientific literacy
and citizenship. In the second part, the main idea behind public engagement in deliberative forums
is introduced and some of the main practical problems that they have encountered are described. In
the third part, two theoretical objections to the deliberative project, the sceptical and the liberal, are
considered. It is argued that there is a neglected aspect of deliberative democratic theory in this
context which relates to public accountability rather than public participation. Finally, the example
of the Icelandic health sector database project is used briefly to demonstrate how these visions of
the citizen can be relevant in an actual public policy.
2. Biological citizenship and scientific literacy
The first approach to the issue of scientific citizenship represented here is a certain type of socio-
logical analysis which takes citizenship primarily as a descriptive term covering various kinds of
activity of citizens responding to available and emerging biotechnology. I choose as an example of
the approach the seminal paper, “Biological Citizenship” by Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas who
demonstrate how a “new kind of biological citizenship is taking shape in the age of biomedicine,
biotechnology and genomics” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 439). They show how “citizenship projects”
and processes of “biological self-making” can be either individualizing or collectivizing. Such a
project or process “is individualized to the extent that individuals shape their relations with them-
selves in terms of knowledge of their somatic individuality” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 441). The
collectivizing aspect of biological citizenship is described by the authors in terms of various bioso-
cial groupings, “collectivities formed around a biological conception of a shared identity” (Rose
and Novas, 2004: 442). The analysis is intended to “encompass all those citizenship projects that
have linked their conceptions of citizens to beliefs about the biological existence of human beings”
(Rose and Novas, 2004: 440). Furthermore, Rose and Novas (2004: 445) talk about strategies of
‘making up citizens’ or “the reshaping of the way in which persons are understood by authorities”.
These strategies from above radically influence all citizenship projects since the political and pro-
fessional discourses, or “biological and biomedical languages”, that “shape citizens’ self-
understandings and self-techniques are disseminated through authoritative channels” (Rose and
Novas, 2004: 446).
Let’s look at an example that shows clearly how Rose and Novas (2004: 447) use the notion of
citizenship. The example which is to demonstrate “self-education of active biological citizens”
emphasizes how pharmaceutical companies engage in activity to educate consumers of their prod-
ucts. A good illustration of this is “the Prozac website” of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly
which uses techniques “to promote a particular version of scientific or biological literacy”. The
example shows how marketing techniques are used to intertwine advice about caring for the self
with the marketing of the drug. In addition to taking the process of recovery more into their own
hands, patients learn to ask their doctor to prescribe Prozac for symptoms of depression. After
describing the example, the authors ask: “What kind of scientific literacy is being promoted here?
What kinds of active biological citizens are being shaped, and to what ends?” (Rose and Novas,
These are important questions which deserve a careful discussion. Rose and Novas (2004: 448)
immediately provide a succinct answer: “This is the citizenship of brand culture, where trust in
brands appears capable of supplanting trust in neutral scientific expertise.” Furthermore, they say
that “this is just one example of the way in which biovalue is supplanting public value in the biologi-
cal education of citizens-consumers” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 448). The term ‘biovalue’ is chosen
for the process in which “advances in the fields of genetics and the neurosciences, transform the
potentialities embodied in life itself into a source of value creation” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 455).
These values are further differentiated into three dimensions of analysis: “Along the first, we see
how life is productive of economic value. Along the second, we see that the manipulation of life
generates a value accorded to the enhancement of health. Along the third, we see that the production
of both wealth and health is bound up with ethical values” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 455).
This value analysis is briefly fleshed out in a couple of examples. After a short description of
projects of building biobanks in Sweden and Iceland, Rose and Novas (2004: 456) conclude that in
those cases “the state plays an active role in transforming their citizens into a potential resource for
the generation of wealth and health”. In their analysis, ethical values enter through the use of bio-
ethical language, for example in PR documents of a Californian biotechnology firm where it is
stated that the practices and products will have “a foundation built on bioethics”. Citing a chief
executive officer at Genomic Health, who finds it critical “for industry to create an open dialogue
with all stakeholders in order to facilitate understanding and to build trust”, Rose and Novas (2004:
458) take these statements as examples of the use of ethics both as “a means of increasing the com-
mercial value of products and a means of satisfying the values necessary to gain the trust and
confidence of the citizen-consumer”.
Let’s take a closer look at the crucial question Rose and Novas raise about literacy in relation to
their analysis of biological citizenship: What kind of scientific literacy is being promoted when a
pharmaceutical company is trying to educate its consumers as the Prozac example briefly demon-
strates? In order to answer that, we need to have some kind of a guiding notion of what literacy
implies. In a definition of literacy that has been adopted by UNESCO (2004: 13), literacy is the
“ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and writ-
ten materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in
enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to par-
ticipate fully in their community and wider society”.
Literacy is a contestable term and I am not choosing this definition as an authoritative standard
but rather to show the rich normative implications that are built into it. The UNESCO notion of
literacy implies a building up of capacities for being a citizen by enabling people to access, inter-
pret and critically evaluate information and knowledge. Drawing upon this understanding of liter-
acy requires that there is some evaluation of the quality of information provided and the kind of
understanding that is promoted. Questions like “is the information truthful?” or “is this some kind
of manipulation rather than authentic education?” are most relevant from this perspective.
Misleading information does not help individuals to orient themselves in the world and propaganda
undermines the ability to critically examine information and evaluate its validity.
Novas and Rose do not raise such questions in their discussion of the type of literacy promoted
by Eli Lilly and they even seem out of place within their discourse. Instead of public value,
930 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
biological value is being produced in the education of citizens-consumers. Are these simply two
alternative production lines in the sociological-biological construction of citizens? Granted that a
certain kind of literacy is needed to appropriate brand culture, but is it “scientific literacy”? There
is a need to distinguish between manipulation and understanding and to evaluate the quality of
information conveyed. One could even ask: Is literacy being promoted at all in the Eli Lilly exam-
ple? Aren’t individuals taking part in a process that does not “develop their knowledge and poten-
tial”, to use words from the UNESCO statement, but rather transforms them “into a potential
resource for the generation of wealth and health”, as Rose and Novas put it (2004: 456).
Rose and Novas ask about citizenship: “What kinds of active biological citizens are being
shaped, and to what ends?” They have provided most instructive answers to this question by
showing how people are engaged in both individual and collective ‘biological self-making’. But,
again, when discussing these projects as citizenship practices rather than, say, consumer manipu-
lation, we need to have a way to differentiate between what is conducive to the ends of citizen-
ship. Can citizenship lead to any ends or is there a limited scope within which the notion is
meaningful? The notion of citizenship implies not just any activity of citizens. It refers to activi-
ties that are different from e.g. those characteristic of a colleague, a customer or a consumer
(Bellamy, 2008). As a descriptive notion it explains rights and duties that citizens actually have
but there are also explicitly normative positions regarding the relationship between individuals
and society. In liberal theories of citizenship, the “normative core is the principle that citizens
shall enjoy equal rights” (Leydet, 2006). In republican theories of citizenship, civic self-rule is
emphasized: “Active participation in processes of deliberation and decision-making ensures that
individuals are citizens, not subjects” (Leydet, 2006).
These classical conceptions of citizenship harbour important implications that need to be taken
into account when citizenship is discussed. Most importantly, being a citizen is distinguished from
being a subject. While citizenship has been analysed in terms of the conditions for political agency,
the subject’s condition is primarily one of obedience to the sovereign. Rose and Novas (2004: 448)
refer to this characteristic of citizenship when they write: “Citizenship, here as elsewhere is to be
active” and they contrast the new biological citizenship with the “passive and compliant patient-
hood of a previous form of medical citizenship”. This is paradoxical because if citizenship is to be
active, how can medical citizenship be characterized in terms of compliance and passivity? This
wording is indeed indicative of a central position of the authors. Judging from many of their exam-
ples, biological citizenship is made manifest through some forms of subjugation. For example,
“biological self-shaping” of individuals is dependent on different forms of power which direct the
self-making in such a way that the citizen becomes a product of “brand culture”, “expert knowl-
edge”, “public health measures” or the state’s creation of wealth.
There is a sense in which individual citizen formation is inevitably a form of subjugation;
“socialization is individualization” as Habermas (1979: 93) puts it. But this subjugation can be
described in different terms and the description by Rose and Novas is clothed in the techno-
logical language of making and being made. This dialectic is characteristic of the linguistic
and social malleability of human beings. But when citizenship is described as a process of
socialization it risks losing its distinctive dimensions. For instance, Bernard Crick (1998: 9)
and his team in Britain argued that the aim of citizenship education is to enable pupils to
become “active, informed, critical and responsive citizens”. This is sometimes referred to as
“active citizenship” but the most important aspect of it in this context is the democratic vision
it implies about citizens who are motivated, informed and able to critically reflect on their
society and willing to participate in processes of public deliberation about matters of common
This is, indeed, far from the biological citizenship which emerges from the analyses of Rose and
Novas. Examples have already been cited from their text which demonstrate the passivity and
subjugation involved in the production of biovalue, but the authors also discuss political participa-
tion of the citizens under the heading of a “political economy of hope”. This notion is described in
terms of both activity and education: “Biological citizenship in a political economy of hope requires
active political engagement – it is a matter of becoming political. A certain amount of education
and technical administration is required in order to make one’s individual and collective voice
heard” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 454, emphasis in original). The examples taken in order to flesh
this out show that political activity is largely identified with activism and lobbyism of patient
groups for a certain cause (e.g. Huntington’s disease) related to their special problems and inter-
ests. Rose and Novas (2004: 453) describe this well when they write that there is a need to “exam-
ine the forms of citizen activism and ethical self-formation that are constitutive of a political
economy of hope”. The notion of ethical self-formation squares well with identity politics which
plays a significant role in citizenship theory. But ethical self-formation promoted through political
activism is quite distinct from the idea of moral reflection on common interests implied in the
education for citizenship. The former basically collectivizes individuals on the basis of their pri-
vate interests and self-interested strategic action in order to have a political impact through force.
The latter emphasizes deliberation which requires that participants assume a public standpoint
from which they discuss matters of public policy. The former is built on the model of special inter-
ests power politics, the latter implies a vision of citizens who are ready to revise their preferences
in light of good reasons and arguments relating to common interests.
The vision of the citizen that emerges from this analysis of biological citizenship is twofold. On
the one hand, the activist citizen who is engaged in furthering the cause related to his or her medical
condition; and on the other hand the citizens who are made up, for example, “as consumers of the
potential range of goods which genomics has to offer” (Rose and Novas, 2004: 457). The main logic
driving them is the hope “for the production of wealth and health” and the respective benefits to be
reaped, whether for individuals, companies or society. Against this backdrop, ethics serves as “a
means of satisfying the values necessary to gain the trust and confidence of the citizen-consumer”
(Rose and Novas, 2004: 458). This picture of the citizen-consumer can hardly be associated with the
vision of active citizens in a democratic society which requires a different kind of participation.
3. Scientific citizenship and deliberative forums
The preceding analysis of biological citizenship is rooted in French post-structuralism with a deep
suspicion about projects to improve democracy. There is a wide theoretical gap between this
Foucauldian approach and perspectives on scientific citizenship which draw upon deliberative
democratic theory (Abelson et al., 2003). While forms of citizenship analysed by Novas and Rose
are mostly implicit, attention is now paid to explicit attempts to involve citizens in deliberative
community engagement which presuppose active and reflective citizens in the spirit of Bernard
Crick’s project of citizenship education.
In their paper “Deliberating about Bioethics”, Gutmann and Thompson (1997: 39) distinguish
between the main social purposes served by deliberation in democracy. The first two of these pur-
poses imply crucial aspects for democratic biopolitics and scientific citizenship: “to promote the
legitimacy of collective decisions” and “to encourage public-spirited perspectives on public
issues”. It is hoped that when citizens authentically engage in conversations about matters of com-
mon concern, they are likely to adopt a public standpoint, to broaden their perspective, and be
willing to revise their individual preferences in the light of information and arguments. This makes
932 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
real deliberation very different from all kinds of strategic interaction which people use in order to
further their special interests. “When citizens bargain and negotiate, they may learn how better to
get what they want. But when they deliberate, they can expand their knowledge, including their
self-understanding as well as their collective understanding of what will best serve their fellow citi-
zens” (Gutmann and Thompson, 1997: 40).
In recent years, many kinds of deliberative events have been planned in order to engage citizens
in relation to policy making in the area of biotechnology. The following is a typical description of
an attempt to engage citizens in deliberation concerning a genome research project (Hicks et al.,
Based on theories of deliberative democracy, our research group sought to engage community members in
open dialogue. The approach assumes that once informed and provided with an opportunity for deliberation,
non-expert members of the public are fully capable of reflecting on highly complex, technical issues.
Participants work to understand each other and determine areas of agreement and disagreement; they both
form and test their judgments within the collective discussion. … Our goal was not to correct a knowledge
deficit, but to enable authentic deliberation and trade-offs among competing values. What risks will the
public accept in order to gain the benefits of genomic research?
This concise statement portrays well the intention of public engagement approaches in the spirit
of deliberative democracy. There are many practical obstacles that such attempts are bound to
meet, but I will concentrate on three critical questions about this approach that have been posed in
the sociological literature on the subject. The first question regards how issues are to be framed for
public debate. Inevitably, there is some kind of “pre-framing” of the agenda which may restrict the
possibilities for participants to discuss matters “within their own terms of reference and frame-
works” (Irwin, 2001: 9). There is always a selection of the information provided and in how it is
presented to the public. Felt et al. (2009) have shown, for example, that there are major difficulties
with involving lay people in ethical discussions about basic science “upstream” even though more
basic value questions and more crucial questions for policy making could be addressed at that
level. This is because “only applications are perceived as relevant for ethical considerations. …
Thus ethics is pushed downstream, to a moment when concrete applications can be discussed”
(Felt et al., 2009: 365). In order to counter this trend, the authors suggest that the imagination of
the participants about the impact of science and innovation upon society be harnessed. In this way,
the ethical discourse could move beyond a narrow focus on protection from risk and discrimination
towards broader questions of what kind of society we want to live in (Felt et al., 2009: 356).
Another important question that has been raised concerning the implementation of the delibera-
tive idea of public engagement and consultation concerns its institutional context. What are the
appropriate forums and public spaces for deliberative participation that are conducive to a dialogue
which is framed in terms of the participants’ concerns? It has been argued (Bickerstaff et al., 2010:
490) that “in often subtle ways the cultural norms of an institution play out in the framing and
enactment of dialogue”. According to these authors, this cannot be dealt with as an organizational
or a procedural question as such because it is rooted both in “conceptualization of the expert-lay
(science-society) relationship” (Bickerstaff et al., 2010: 491) and in the corresponding institutional
culture and ways of working. Institutional cultures are largely characterized by “long-standing and
fundamentally hierarchical models of engagement” which resist initiatives to introduce “more
radical and egalitarian modes of scientific citizenship” (Bickerstaff et al., 2010: 490).
The hierarchical models of engagement referred to are versions of “the deficit model” (Durant,
1999: 314), according to which knowledgeable experts are to educate lay people about science and
technology. The alternative democratic model seeks to establish a relationship of equality between
scientists and non-scientists and “emphasizes dialogue between scientists and non-scientists”
(Durant, 1999: 315). It has to be asked in this context in what sense a relationship of equality can
be established between these partners. Gadamer (1975: 92) argues that by authentically engaging
in a conversation or deliberation the partners ‘forget’ themselves and become occupied with the
subject matter of the dialogue. Such participation in dialogue does not result in equality in the sense
that all viewpoints are given equal weight. To the contrary, listening to and recognizing another
point of view implies “that one has to concede the possibility of superior knowledge and insight to
someone else” (Warnke, 1987: 135). This attitude is a manifestation of humility which is the
mother of true knowledge. To refer to a paradoxical point made by Hicks et al. (2008) above, an
authentic deliberation will thus inevitably “correct a knowledge deficit”.
This understanding of dialogue erases a clear demarcation line between public participation and
public competence. The latter has been associated with the deficit model of knowledge while the
former is related to dialogue: “Whereas the competence approach is primarily concerned with one-
way translation and dissemination from science to passive citizens, the participatory approach is
experimenting with new formats that involve direct interaction, dialogue and participation in two-
way communication” (Mejlgaard and Stares, 2010: 546). These authors and others (Bauer et al.,
2007) have sensibly argued that a proper understanding of scientific citizenship needs to integrate
both dimensions. The dialogue serves the function both of conveying the concerns and values of the
public and of building up competencies and skills which enable citizens “to navigate effectively and
define their role within the system” of the knowledge society (Mejlgaard and Stares, 2010: 547).
Thirdly, it needs to be asked whether public deliberations do inform and affect government pol-
icy. This is an empirical question which needs to be answered through case studies. The conclusion
of one such study (Hagendijk and Irwin, 2006) is that while talk about deliberative practices has
become commonplace in most European countries, the application of deliberative democratic the-
ory is quite constrained and has a long way to go. Instead of being an alternative mode of gover-
nance, Hagendijk and Irwin (2006: 182) conclude that in practice deliberation is mixed with other
types of governance. Moreover, they write (2006: 183) “we have seen that these experiments tend
in practice to be partial and limited in scope … They often represent isolated and insulated attempts
to respond to public unrest. As such, they can resemble little more than an extension of corporatist
modes of governance, without recognizing the wider challenges of deliberative democracy.”
Studies have also been done on dialogue events that are not intended to influence policy. It has
been argued (Davies et al., 2009: 347) that since such non-policy dialogue events are less likely to
suffer from the constraints of authority and a hidden agenda, they could be “far more effective in
changing the culture of science to become more personally relevant and democratically account-
able than through public participation in policy.” The authors admit, however, that often non-policy
dialogue events do not meet this ideal and much more research is needed to show what actually
takes place within dialogue events of this kind. The same could be said about policy oriented dia-
logue events. Hagendijk and Irwin (2006: 182) conclude their study by noting that “the European
rhetoric of ‘innovation through deliberation’ needs careful scrutiny. Tough questions need to be
asked, raising fundamental issues for the governance of science”.
4. Participation and democratic accountability
The preceding discussion entails valuable criticism of deliberative practices and shows the com-
plexities and obstacles to be dealt with in relation to their implementation, but it need not contradict
any of the theoretical tenets of the deliberative vision of the scientific citizen. To the contrary, the
934 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
criticism is immanent in the sense that it asks whether the “mechanisms of public deliberation”
(Irwin, 2001: 2) are able to keep the promises implied in the slogans of public engagement and
empowerment or whether they serve other purposes. The democratic vision of the deliberative
approach is not rejected, but is constructively criticized from a practical point of view, for example
by arguing that “it is necessary to adopt a flexible and situationally appropriate approach” (Irwin,
2001: 16) rather than a one-size-fits-all model of deliberative practices.
There are other types of criticism, however, that are properly described as objections to the idea
of citizenship in the spirit of deliberative democratic theory. I will briefly consider two of them: the
sceptical and the liberal objections. Under the heading of the sceptical objection, I classify those
who doubt the intrinsic value of public deliberation. From this perspective, deliberation is seen as
an attempt to make the public more docile and trusting in public policy or corporate undertaking.
Elam and Bertilsson (2003: 241), for example, speak cynically about deliberation in attempts to
increase public understanding of science: “New deliberative forums are being designed as oppor-
tunities for science and the public to spend quality time together.” Drawing upon Mouffe’s criti-
cism of deliberative democracy, Elam and Bertilsson (2003: 244) argue that the emphasis on
reaching a consensus would greatly reduce “the available space for expression of dissent in innova-
tion processes” and will in fact reinforce existing power relations. This leads to an activist idea of
scientific citizenship where other modes of communication than rational deliberation are used in
order to create “legitimate forms of public confrontation with science and technology outside the
deliberative process” (Elam and Bertilsson, 2003: 245).
The emphasis on consensus in deliberative democratic theory is overrated in this criticism. The
main idea is to aim for a consensus about the legitimacy of decisions or outcomes, even though
substantial disagreements remain (Gutmann and Thompson, 1997). Ideas of deliberative democ-
racy can also be used critically against every real consensus that has been reached, for example in
deliberative exercises that have been conducted, without taking all viewpoints fairly into account
and without giving the participants “the opportunity to challenge the information presented”
(Abelson et al., 2003: 244). Elam and Bertilsson (2003: 245) use “a classic example” about the
AIDS activists who were “largely excluded from decision-making processes deciding their fate”,
as a criticism of deliberative democracy. But it could be argued that this example shows to the
contrary the importance of the demand to include everyone affected by a decision or a policy in the
decision-making process. From a deliberative democracy viewpoint, the activists were justified in
using strategic means and bargaining in order to gain access to the decision-making and funding
bodies setting priories for AIDS research.
The sceptical objection is clearly akin to the biological citizenship argument of Rose and Novas.
The lure of this argument is that in a world of power play and conflict it is in many ways realistic
while deliberative democratic ideas can appear naïve (Hagendijk and Irwin, 2006: 169). A funda-
mental flaw of this approach, however, is that it confuses descriptions of actual policies with the
rightful basis of action or public legitimacy which requires that “courses of action are chosen
because they are based on reasons which all could accept” (Held, 2006: 245). This idea can be
manipulated like any other but it provides an important vision of policy making in democratic
society which the sceptical view loses sight of. A valuable reminder of the sceptical view, however,
is that deliberative events can become diplomatic ways to ensure a more docile population through
managed consultation. This is particularly dangerous when “promissory science” (Hedgecoe,
2004: 17), which citizens have no experience of but which raises their hopes, is being introduced.
This can lead to a premature justification of a policy with unforeseen social consequences.
The liberal criticism of the deliberative vision of the citizen concerns the demands placed on
citizens in liberal democratic society. To hold this objection one need not doubt the intrinsic value
of deliberation but rather emphasize other values that are more important to protect people’s basic
interests. From an individualist liberal viewpoint, the citizens should not be bothered with demands
for collective deliberation on public policy. They should be able to enjoy the privacy of their per-
sonal life and have freedom from politics. This squares well with the prevailing view towards citi-
zens that is implicit in bioethical discourse (Árnason, 2009) where the main purpose is to protect
the personal domain of the individual from illegitimate intrusion. This protection makes it possible
to reap the benefits from advances in biotechnology and genetic research without interference from
The protection view and the benefit view are important, but a public policy about biotechnology
which is guided exclusively by these views provides no democratic resistance to the passive forma-
tion of the biological citizen as analysed by Rose and Novas. The deliberative vision of the scien-
tific citizen does not violate the right to privacy and freedom from politics, but it emphasizes the
fact that in democratic society every citizen is partially responsible for public policy. It is a duty of
democratic politicians to conduct politics in such a way that the citizens are well informed and
otherwise enabled to assume their responsibilities as democratic citizens which in turn should
affect political decisions. It could still be said that many citizens are not interested in being informed
and responsible and their choices in that regard will be respected. Nevertheless, it is quite compat-
ible with liberal politics to emphasize citizenship education that motivates citizens to think about
common concerns and develop the skills of reasoning and mentality of respect which is crucial for
deliberative democratic practices.
This deliberative view implies a vision of the citizen which is markedly different from the pro-
tection and the benefit views and can complement them by taking into account the capacities or
moral powers that are needed for active and reflective participation in democratic society. As we
have seen from the previous discussion, the main emphasis in the application of deliberative
democracy has been on “direct discussion and engagement” (Irwin, 2001: 16), and the weaknesses
of the approach are related to how difficult it is to successfully implement the idea. If carefully
used, however, the guiding vision of scientific citizenship can resist the passive making of the
biological citizen and even compensate for the loss of public value in that process.
It is interesting to see how the discussion of deliberative practices tends to focus almost exclu-
sively on direct participation of citizens in various dialogical events and its impact on policy and
decision making. However, other crucial aspects of deliberative democracy have been neglected in
this discussion and need to be drawn upon in order to strengthen the vision of scientific citizenship.
Judging from Habermas’ analysis of three models of democracy (1998: 248–249, emphasis in
original), direct participation is the main characteristic of the republican view on democracy but
not of discourse theory:
Discourse theory has the success of deliberative politics depend not on a collectively acting citizenry but
on the institutionalization of the corresponding procedures and conditions of communication. … Discourse
theory works … with the higher-level intersubjectivity of communication processes that flow through both
the parliamentary bodies and the informal networks of the public sphere. Within and outside the
parliamentary complex, these subjectless forms of communication constitute arenas in which a more or
less rational opinion- and will-formation can take place.
The key notion here is “rational opinion- and will-formation”. The distinctive feature of delib-
erative democratic theory is its emphasis on the quality of arguments and reasons used to justify
policy and that validity of these reasons needs to be tested in communication that is free from
deception and coercion. Recall that according to Gutmann and Thompson (1997: 39) the first
936 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
social purpose “served by deliberation in democracy” is promoting the democratic legitimacy of
political decisions. Chambers (2003: 308) even sees accountability rather than consent as “the
conceptual core of legitimacy”. From this perspective, the way in which public policy is explained
and justified to the citizens is essential and the activity of the legislators and policy makers comes
into focus. “Deliberative democratic theory critically investigates the quality, substance, and ratio-
nality of the arguments and reasons brought to defend policy and law” (Chambers, 2003: 309).
This requires a scrutiny of working procedures and modes of reasoning in politics and public
administration as well as of the ways in which information is presented and made accessible to the
public, e.g. in the media. Public accountability implies that policy can be justified to all that it
affects and that they can accept its legitimacy.
These aspects of accountability can be regarded as necessary conditions for informed public
opinion and deliberation about public policy. The other main form that the promotion of democratic
legitimacy of political decisions can take is to create deliberative forums designed to enhance and
facilitate public deliberation about the issues for public policy. This aspect of participation as a fea-
ture of deliberative democracy should not, however, be overestimated and certainly not be confused
with direct participatory democracy. In the latter the primary emphasis is on widening the scope and
increasing the amount of issues about which citizens can have a direct say. In deliberative democ-
racy, on the other hand, the main rationale behind the deliberative forum is to facilitate better
informed and more reasonable decisions. The results of deliberative forums feed into policy deci-
sions by informing policy makers about the arguments, viewpoints and concerns of the citizens.
One way to put this point is to say that scientific citizenship requires good governance which,
as Davies and Wolf-Phillips (2006: 59) argue, “requires a change not so much in getting the public
to set the research priorities but in the organizational structures and models on which the ways of
working are based”. This implies that the way to restore public trust in science is to establish trust-
worthy institutions and practices. By removing the primary emphasis from participation to account-
ability, the focus is partly moved from the competencies and literacy of each individual to the
“collective literacy” (Roth and Lee, 2002) of a community in which science is being taught, applied
5. The example of Iceland
In 1998, the research company, deCODE genetics, announced a plan to construct a central popula-
tion database where health care information about Icelandic citizens could be cross-referenced
with genealogical and genetic information. After a high court ruling concerning flaws in privacy
protection, the project was aborted (Árnason, 2010). With good co-operation with the Icelandic
public, deCODE genetics managed to build a large population database as a resource for its research
on various diseases.
The Icelandic database project is one of the examples that Rose and Novas take to demonstrate
how the Icelandic citizenry is being transformed for the creation of biovalue. This is in many ways
an interesting example from the viewpoint of citizenship because of the strong willingness of the
Icelandic people to participate in the project. Polls repeatedly showed overwhelming public sup-
port for the project which was heavily criticized by the Icelandic professional community and
many local and international experts who argued that the policies of presumed consent and privacy
violated major principles of research ethics (Palsson and Rabinow, 2004: 98). While critics
approached the issue from a protective position – emphasizing the rights of participants to privacy,
self-determination, non-discrimination and protection from harm – the general public adopted a
benefit position held by spokesmen of the company and the majority of politicians. This included
both the economic benefits associated with employment opportunities for scientists and the medi-
cal benefits that would be reaped from the project. In the language of Rose and Novas (2004: 455,
456), most Icelandic citizens seem to have gone willingly and even enthusiastically into “the ser-
vice of biovalue”, hoping or even convinced that the project would generate both “wealth and
The question must be asked whether it is misleading to say that the Icelanders who did not opt
out of the intended database were voluntary collaborators in the project. Is it more correct to say,
as do Rose and Novas (2004: 455), that their vitality was transformed “into a standing reserve for
the creation of biovalue”? This should not be regarded as an either–or issue. It is essential to the
analysis of Rose and Novas that there is an interplay between the voluntary enthusiasm of the citi-
zens and the transforming forces of biopolitics and biocapital. The vitality of individuals is har-
nessed for the production of biovalue. It is crucial to this dialectic that there is no coercion or order
from above; instead there is an appeal to “civic virtues” (Palsson and Rabinow, 2004) and even
obligations to contribute to a project which could benefit the sick and the disabled. This is analysed
by Rose and Novas (2004: 442) as “a moral economy of hope, in which ignorance, resignation and
hopelessness in the face of the future is deprecated. This is simultaneously an economy in the more
traditional sense, for the hope for the innovation that will treat or cure stimulates the circuits of
investment and the creation of biovalue”.
From the viewpoint of deliberative democracy and scientific citizenship, several questions need
to be raised regarding public accountability and citizens’ participation in this example. As for the
former, it is essential to investigate “the quality, substance, and rationality of the arguments and
reasons brought to defend the policy and law” (Chambers, 2003: 309) relating to the Icelandic
health sector database project. It has been argued (Árnason and Árnason, 2004) that politicians
failed in publicly articulating, explaining and justifying the policy regarding the database project.
A major question concerns the benefits which a project of this kind can be expected to engender.
Strong statements, by both scientists and politicians, were made about the potentials of genetics for
health care (Hakonarson et al., 2003). It is of the nature of a “promissory science” (Hedgecoe,
2004: 17) that the possible benefits and the social harms are intertwined and the “economy of
hope” is nourished by focusing on the promises of benefits (Árnason, 2011).
The evaluation of the benefits of such a project is very complex and it is difficult to frame these
issues in a social debate. It is a cheap way of justifying a new genetic research project to ask in a
deliberative forum: “What risks will the public accept in order to gain the benefits of genomic
research?” (Hicks et al., 2008: 2). Nevertheless, there is all the more reason to look for ways to
increase the likelihood of understanding and sensible decisions among both the public and policy
makers. From the deliberative viewpoint, it is most important to improve governance by evaluating
“the institutions, forums, venues, and public spaces available for deliberative justification and
accountability” (Chambers, 2003: 309). Iceland is very weak in this regard. Unlike other Nordic
countries, Iceland has no national ethical council that has the task of raising public debate about
bioethical developments and policy. Such institutions have the general aim of respecting the prin-
ciples of scientific practice and moral conduct rather than serving the political authorities or the
private sector. Deliberations in trustworthy bodies can both provide conditions for informed public
debate and further democratic accountability.
Another indication of democratic weakness in Iceland is the media. It has been shown
(Hjörleifsson, 2008) that with the exception of the population database project, human genetic
research and its potential effect on health and society has not been much discussed. Hjörleifsson
(2008: 75) is especially critical of the Icelandic media coverage which “has been framed in such a
way that highly relevant questions are left unattended”. The study (Hjörleifsson et al., 2008)
938 Public Understanding of Science 22(8)
demonstrates that news briefs from deCODE about their successes were uncritically taken up by
the media which even leaves out the company’s own reservations. In this way, scientific and health
care benefits of the research are treated as being beyond reasonable doubt, while uncertainty about
financial issues is predominant.
Furthermore, it is especially significant from both the perspective of deliberative democratic
theory and the sceptical standpoint that the only community meetings held in order to discuss the
population database project were organized by the genetic research company. These meetings were
usually held in local health care centres and were conducted by spokesmen of the company gather-
ing public support for the database project.
All of this can be used to substantiate the statement of Rose and Novas (2004: 455) that Icelandic
citizens were “a standing reserve for the creation of biovalue”. Icelandic society provides very little
democratic resistance to the transforming powers of private companies, be they in the banking or
the health sector. As a consequence, the Icelandic population is most vulnerable to the moulding
forces of the economy and biology and the vitality of the citizens is easily harnessed for the prom-
ise of creating health and wealth. According to the analysis of Rose and Novas, this makes the
Icelanders a good example of biological citizenship. From the viewpoint of deliberative demo-
cratic theory, on the other hand, it shows a lack of both the major background conditions that
enable people to exercise the capacities essential for scientific citizenship and the institutions nec-
essary for public accountability.
The analysis of scientific citizenship in this paper has drawn upon two perspectives that have very
different intellectual roots and create diverse positions and theoretical tensions which will not be
reconciled. Nevertheless, the post-Foucauldian perspective and the deliberative democratic per-
spective can potentially serve a complementary function in research of public engagement. The
former is radically suspicious about ameliorative projects of democracy based on active citizen
engagements and demonstrates how such projects are linked to the constitution of the subjects as
vehicles of biopower. This view can be easily substantiated with empirical examples which show
how people take part in the economy of hope engendered by the promissory science of genetics. As
such it serves as a constant reminder of the processes of social engineering at work in democratic
society, even in the name of public engagement and consultation. This can be lost sight of in naïve
versions of deliberative democratic exercises. However, the sceptical view lacks a vision of the
scientific citizen which provides democratic resistance to the passive formation of the consumer-
citizen. The tools for this are not found only in the various forms of direct public engagement but
also and more importantly in the aspect of deliberative democratic theory which emphasizes public
accountability and democratic legitimacy of policies. From this perspective, the focus is turned
towards the institutions that are the venues of democratic decision making and to a critical investi-
gation of the practices of accountability and justification.
In effect this invites a twofold critical approach to the evaluation of biopolitics and the forms of
scientific citizenship they imply. On the one hand, analysis of the strategies at work in the constitu-
tion and self-making of the biological citizen along the lines suggested by Rose and Novas. Their
analysis shows us how the actual processes of citizen making are functioning and these dynamics
can in the long run undermine the basic structure of liberal democratic society. On the other hand,
a critical analysis of the arguments and reasons used to justify biopolitical projects is needed.
Deliberative democratic theory provides a normative and emancipatory vision of the scientific citi-
zen whose powers are harnessed in the public interest rather than merely for the creation of health
and wealth. These two approaches are not to be reconciled, partly because their value consists in
the tension between them and the mutual critical resistance that they provide to one-sided analyses
of complex phenomena.
I thank the University of Iceland research fund for a grant which has enabled me to carry out this research and
the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland, for providing me with research and writing facilities. I thank Gardar
Árnason and Stefán Hjörleifsson for helpful comments on an earlier draft and anonymous reviewers of the
journal for good suggestions.
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Vilhjálmur Árnason holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in philosophy from Purdue University, USA, and
a B.A. in philosophy and comparative literature from the University of Iceland. His research inter-
ests are in the areas of practical philosophy and applied ethics, with a recent focus on democracy,
citizenship and biopolitics. He is professor of philosophy and chair of the Centre for Ethics at the
University of Iceland.