Co-producing scientific uncertainties and soft law
From Elisabeth Barlow on May 12th, 2021
Abstract of the presentation
No specialized body within the UN system evaluates emerging technosciences. Responding to what they perceive as a gap, civil society movements, NGOs, and certain States are taking their concerns with some technosciences to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In the context of a “New and Emerging Issues” (NEI) mechanism, the CBD has recently engaged with biofuels and synthetic biology. Through interviews, analysis of texts, and participant observation at CBD meetings from 2010 to 2014, I examine the treaty’s responses to scientific uncertainties related to NEI negotiations. I first explore how actors’ invocations of precaution aligned with their descriptions of relevant scientific uncertainties at the 2010 biofuel negotiations. The discussions addressed a broad range of types of uncertainty, but the COP’s textual output reduced these to gaps in knowledge. I then trace some of the implications of restricting attention to a narrow range of uncertainties, as CBD bodies have struggled to agree on a response to biofuels-related indirect land use change or on proper application of the NEI criteria to synthetic biology. What kinds of uncertainties are legible to the treaty? How is the treaty responding to the absence of evidence? These questions are broadly relevant for biodiversity governance, but are particularly salient for emerging technosciences. I consider alternatives for the CBD’s future engagement with NEI.
About the speaker
Deborah Scott recently joined the University of Edinburgh as a Research Fellow with the ‘Engineering Life’ project in Science, Technology & Innovation Studies. Her academic background is in biology (BA, Goshen College), law (JD, Lewis & Clark Law School), and human geography (PhD, Rutgers University).
Deborah Scott's presentation was followed by responses from Pablo Schyfter ( Science Technology and Innovation Studies, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh) and Sarah Chan (Chancellor's Fellow, School of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh).
Dr Catherine Heeney of the Mason Institute chaired the session.