The Value of Public Opinion
This month’s library is brought to you by Caitlin Price Youngquist, a PhD student at Washington State University. As part of her research Caitlin has conducted public opinion surveys about the best uses of Class A biosolids. A summary of her findings is in this month’s Biobull. After Caitlin read the October library, she offered to add a few references on public acceptance that she had found helpful. Here is her write up. I’ll be back in February with research on PFOS. As a follow-up to October’s library (A Matter of Opinion), let’s dive a little deeper into the world of risk perception, community engagement, and the public-expert interface. Some interesting work has been done in these areas with both waste management and other controversial environmental topics. As I work my way through these papers, it becomes clear that to develop strong community support for beneficial re-use of waste products (both in theory and practice), the public must be fully engaged. This means that not only do we need to know how people feel, but we also need to understand the dynamics of the social and decision making processes within communities. The first article in the library explores risk perception and risk communication theory and how it applies to biosolids management and research. First we get a brief history lesson on the early efforts of the biosolids industry to gain "public acceptance" and the use of the "Decide-Announce-Defend" strategy. This strategy is based on presenting the public with science based information in order to convince them that the decisions the experts are making on their behalf are good ones. Unfortunately this strategy falls short of effective community engagement and leaves the industry playing a game of defense that it can't win. Risk perception theory and risk communication strategy are presented as tools that can help bridge the gaps between lay knowledge and expert knowledge on technical topics like biosolids management. From here we go to Canada to explore the world of risk management and public health a little further. The authors explain that risk assessment and management models have been developed in response to the need for "systematic and transparent process with which to manage risks in order to most effectively protect and ultimately enhance population health status." While this article does not focus specifically on the world of biosolids, it provides a valuable overview of risk management decision making principles, the precautionary approach, and risk perception, acceptability, and communication. Next up are two very interesting articles by Judith Petts that explore the public-expert interface, and barriers to participation in waste management decision making. In the first article (1997), she examines a two year public engagement program in the UK designed to involve the public in waste management decision by identifying issues and concerns and then providing feedback to local government. This critical examination improves our understanding of expertise as a process, and shows the public as "legitimate participants" in the decision making process. She argues that strategies that do not recognize expertise as a communication and learning process are likely to fail in a risk management context. The scientific community has a narrower definition of risk than the public, who's definition often includes physical, economic, social, and psychological impacts. For the public, the credibility of an expert is as important as their knowledge. The expert's job is to provide information and then be challenged or tested. Credibility is gained by performance, evidence of independence, and evidence of acting with the public in mind. Therefore, it is the process of the interaction with experts that builds or destroys credibility. Petts challenges the idea that the public is "information poor" and instead points out that they can capitalize on a range of cultural and experiential resources that help them balance risks and benefits. While it is clear that more effective public engagement strategies would be helpful, we still have a lot to learn about how to do this. In her second article (2004), Petts examines some of the barriers to public participation in the deliberative processes that influence decision making, especially in the context of waste management. She tells us that the nature of the risk needs to be "determined through discussion with the public not in advance of discussion." Public participation in environmental risk assessment and decision making can enhance democracy, institutional legitimacy, and trust and confidence in the decisions and decision makers. However, she warns of the risks of trying to use a "cook-book" approach. And finally we go back to the land of Frodo for examples of community engagement and biosolids management. Four research projects were established in New Zealand to explore some of the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of community involvement in biosolids decision making. We learn about the differences between the public-participation and social-learning approaches, although both have a common thread in the "rejection of technocratic, top-down decision-making". Accountability is still a challenge with both strategies and the authors suggest that key decisions should still remain the responsibility of the government. While the authors found that the community was best served by approaching biosolids management as a piece of a larger integrated water-and-wastewater management program, the way in which the issues are defined will likely influence participation in community involvement efforts. The full report from a recent survey conducted by a team from Washington State University, and funded by the Town of La Conner, is available at the WSU Biosolids Management page: http://puyallup.wsu.edu/soilmgmt/Biosolids.html. The "any additional comments, thoughts, or opinions" section makes for very interesting reading! More than half of all respondents were "somewhat interested" or "very interested" in working with local government to develop a community waste management strategy. But what really stood out were the comments like "thank you for asking our opinion," "thank you for the opportunity to contribute," and "we would like to see increased awareness and education of biosolids." Maybe it is time to think about waste management strategies that involve community members in both the risk assessment and decision making process?
Sally Brown, with Caitlin P. Youngquist