Expert-citizen interactions on food technology

Thus far, 'responsible innovation' restricts itself to taking into account the negative impacts of emerging technologies on safety, health and environment. But many technologies, including those concerning food, also impact our culture, morals and politics. This research seeks to develop forms of science-society dialogue on food innovation that makes these latter impacts, often wrongly treated as ‘soft’, available for public reflection and discussion.

The public holds technologists accountable for these 'soft impacts', but the latter typically feel unable, or unwilling, to integrate those impacts in their research, judging them non-quantifiable, controversial, or 'at best' private.

This research seeks to improve the dialogue between science and society - considered to be the hallmark of any responsible innovation- on these soft impacts, and their integration into innovation. This is necessary, because societal acceptance of emerging technologies depends to a large extent on trusting technologists to take these wider concerns into account. When no one takes responsibility for such concerns, there can be no trust because the discussion already failed at its very beginning.
Our research combines alpha, beta and gamma expertise, providing an overview of the 'soft' controversies regarding food technology, organizing fruitful stakeholder interactions, and investigating if and how those concerns can be translated to research. The betas provide the state of the art and prospects of their fields. The philosophy AIO (Dirk Haen, Maastricht University) surveys the controversies regarding food technology, expands the parameters of public reason so that these can encompass soft impacts, and analyses techno-moral change.

The gamma postdoc (Petra Sneijder, WUR) analyzes the discourse concerning soft impacts and research agendas, both in consumer group interviews and online discussions on issues related to food technology. The analysis focuses on the way consumers respond to innovative products, e.g. how they make relevant their own territories in discussing food technology and thereby achieve the identities of autonomous and critical consumers.

Furthermore, the researchers in this project design ways to make stakeholders self-reflexive about the contingencies of hard/soft and public/private distinctions. The methods developed for creating dialogue (Discursive Action Method &  Techno-ethical imagination) between stakeholders were applied in three workshop settings in which food engineers from science and industry, consumers, policy makers and other professionals in the field of food participated.


Swierstra, T. & te Molder, H.  (2012). Risk and soft impacts, in S. Roeser, R. Hillerbrand, M. Peterson & P. Sandin (Eds.) Handbook of risk theory (pp.1050-1066). Dordrecht: Springer.


Public dialogue on science and technology is problematic on two accounts: who is allowed to join the discussion, and what topics are on the agenda. This paper discusses the problem that policy and technology actors seem to focus ‘naturally’ on risk rather than on technology’s social and ethical impacts that often constitute the focus of concern for the broader public. There is nothing natural about this bias. It is the result of the way discourses on technology and policy are structured in technological, liberal, pluralistic societies. Risks qualify as ‘hard’ (i.e. objective, rational, neutral, factual), other impacts as ‘soft’ (i.e. subjective, emotional, partisan, value-laden) and therefore dismissable. To help redress this bias, we analyse how this distinction between hard and soft impacts is construed – in practice and in theory. How are expected (desired, feared) impacts of technology played out in expert-citizen/consumer interactions?  We first discuss online patient deliberations on a future pill for celiac disease (‘gluten intolerance’) promising to replace patients’ life-long diet. By ’rejecting’ this pill, patients displayed concerns about how the new technology would affect their identity, and the values incorporated in the way they had learned to handle their disease. Secondly, we analyse how experts construct a consumers’ concern with ’naturalness’ of food:  as a private – and invalid - preference that requires no further debate. The point of the analysis is to make available for discussion and reflection currently dominant ways to demarcate public and private issues in relation to emerging technologies, including the accompanying distributions of tasks and responsibilities over experts and laypersons.  We discuss how  their manoeuvring room is co-shaped by discursive structures at work in modern, technological, pluralist, liberal societies and conclude with some suggestions for further research.