Jasanoff, S.S. (1987). Contested boundaries in policy-relevant science. Social Studies of Science 17, 195-230.

In “Contested Boundaries,: Sheila Jasanoff explores different conceptualizations of the science-policy interface as articulated by a variety of scientific and policy institutions. Jasanoff uses the debate over the regulation formaldehyde and its designation as a carcinogen to explore these different conceptualizations. She draws on discourse from a veritable alphabet soup of government and scientific organizations including EPA, OSHA, OSTP, OMB, and NAS. Ultimately Jasanoff concludes that the contested boundaries of science and policy are a fundamental rhetorical problem. She argues that the language used to construct and conceptualize the boundaries tends to place power and/or blame on one side of the boundary. Of course this localization of power and/or blame is to the benefit of one or more of the parties using or originating the interface-construct.

Jasanoff begins her article by establishing the different modes of discussion and debate used in science and policy. She contrasts the relatively private peer-review and conference discussion process of science with the public legal/adversarial processes of policy. She notes how the consensus building and decision-making processes internal to science have helped establish science’s special place in knowledge generation. Jasanoff further argues that since the modus operandi of policy is to publically deconstruct the opposing side by pointing biases and areas of uncertainty that this makes science more hesitant to engage in policy as it may futher erode public confidence in science. In an attempt to manage this tension, scientists and policy makers have developed conceptual constructs that delimit “pure” science from policy science and “pure” policy from science-based policy.

Jasanoff traces three such constructs that were popular in the science-policy discourse of the 1970s and 1980s: “science policy,” “risk assessment,” and “peer review.” In her initial discussion Jasanoff explores the shift from “trans-science” to “science policy.” As she describes, each of these constructs were developed to articulate the nature of a “grey area” between science and policy, or in the words of Alvin Weinberg, the space made up of questions that “can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” Janasoff argues that the establishment of this grey area creates a space where scientific concepts are subject to policy decision-making strategies. This, of course, places significant power in the hands of policy makers. However, this also serves to shift the locus of tension between science and policy to the location of the boundary. How can one distinguish between science (“pure and unbiased” and trans-science (the place for policy). As Jasanoff elucidates, this is a matter for contention as well. The discourse of trans-science tends to place the onus on the scientists. However, the reformulation of trans-science as “science policy” locates trans-science as a subset of policy.

According to Jasanoff, another major issue in the development of different interface constructs was the nature of the questions “science couldn’t answer.” As would be expected much of this has to do with science as predictive. Consequently the debate around science policy in general, and the potentially carcinogenic-nature of formaldehyde shifted to a discussion about policies of risk. Within this new discursive arena of science policy the boundaries were redrawn to include two areas of discussion: risk assessment and risk management. As the terms imply, under this division of labor scientists would be responsible for determining whether or not something was risky to either the environment or human health, and the policy-makers would manage that risk through appropriate guidelines and legislation.

Finally Jasanoff explored demands for peer-review in science policy. According to the article, many government sponsored scientists involved in predictive risk assessment were not subject to the same type of peer-review as traditional “internal” science. Therefore there was a rising demand for some form of peer-review-style oversight in this emerging field. However the nature of the peer-review, who constituted peers, and what data needed to be reviewed were all issues of constant debate.