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Poetry, science and democracy at the World Social Forum

University of Tunis

IATP's Dr. Steve Suppan is blogging from Tunis, Tunisia, the site of the World Social Forum.

In Tunisia, important events begin with a poem. The interpretation technology was not working yet, but poetry is difficult to translate in any event. The opening session of the World Forum on Science and Democracy was no less significant because of a momentary technology glitch.

The very notion of science and democracy may seem antiquated or self evident. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a Center for Science and Democracy, which is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Agency (FDA) to allow FDA scientists to speak with the public about their work without vetting from their managers. But here, the birthplace of the democratic revolutions of 2011—called the “Arab Spring” by Western journalists—nothing is taken for granted. As a representative of IATP, the only U.S. NGO at a conference of about 200 academics and NGOs from around the world, I am surprised to discover what is taken for granted.

The newly elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University of Tunisia, our host, begins his welcoming remarks with a quote from the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, writing in the midst of the Algerian revolution of the 1950s against French occupation of Algeria: democracy is to be able to choose and to allow one to choose without imposition. If this seems an odd way to open a quasi-academic conference, the quote from Camus prefaced an eloquent discussion of how scientists, such as the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the U.S. anthropologist Gregory Bateson, show how human interdependence, beginning with mother and child, is the basis of all democracy.

I came prepared to present on the application of nanotechnology to fertilizers and its implications for soil health and biodiversity. Tunisia is major producer of phosphorus for fertilizer. The presentation was derived from an upcoming IATP report, Nanomaterials in Soil; Our Future Food Chain?, but the open windows of the lecture hall and the brilliant Tunisian sun made the text and images nearly illegible. No matter.

The discussion about a presentation long on words to describe what could not be seen but had to be taken on faith was lively but surprising. I explained how technology assessment offered a way to create a democratic dialogue between scientists and the citizens who paid for much of their education and research. I outlined how in the United States, government and corporate scientists worked on nanotechnology projects with no public input in comparative technology choice or investment of public money for products that sometimes harm public and environmental health. The application of treated sewage sludge—biosolids, to use the EPA approved term—now including nanomaterials from the nanotechnology production waste stream is an example of a technology investment with no citizen participatory technology assessment.

Despite the heroic efforts of interpreters, more than a few questions assumed that technology assessment would prevent developing countries from building their own advanced technologies. What right did the West have to deny Iran nuclear energy? If developing countries were denied such advanced technologies, how would they develop? I explained that a better technological choice for decentralized energy might be solar energy, but this short answer did little to counter an old belief that all advanced technologies bring enlightenment, progress and democracy.

But just this first day of the Science and Democracy World Forum has shown me that I understand even less of the world than I had supposed. I have learned, however, that a university which welcomes a debate on science and democracy with a poem and an elegant presentation on the human interdependence of democracy has much to teach us.