Voice, Tone, Trust, and Power

And yet there was real sincerity in the formulation of social scientific goals within GoNERI. The engineers who were involved put this on record early on. Out of their own experience and initial contacts, they felt that they needed to collaborate with social scientists, and in order to do that, they needed to understand the social sciences better—their domain, concepts, terminology, and methods. This would mean going beyond the standard nuclear engineers' view (as my colleague Joonhong Ahn described it at one point) that what was needed was better ways of getting societal acceptance of nuclear energy. Instead it would take actually understanding societal structures and processes and listening to the public in order to develop engineering options (note the plural) to explore in some kind of societal partnership. The framing of social scientific literacy, as I understand it, was intended to point to a foundational kind of learning that engineers were willing to take on.[1]

This openness was encouraging against the backdrop of the history of the nuclear community's engagement with social science, which has often been marked by selective listening and instrumentalization, using social scientific techniques in the service of affirming an existing agenda or calling in outside analysts and then doing nothing with their work.[2] What made it plausible to speak plainly within the PAGES project was trust—my confidence in my Berkeley colleague and others he invited in, his openness to the social scientists on the Tokyo side, and our shared willingness to try out controversial ideas on each other. In a strange way, the last of these was facilitated by the language barrier. It was possible to get away with framing things sharply and then apologizing when I could be the bullin-a-china-shop American, at least by Japanese standards. My understanding is that my Japanese colleagues spoke fairly directly with each other, but that voice rarely surfaced in formal written materials, at least until the present book. Part of the trust also came out of working and traveling (and drinking) together on site visits, including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, NM, and the Swedish interim storage facility, Clab, near Oskarshamn. The challenge was then taking this shared basis for communication and putting it to work for others who were not in the same boat.

This was especially challenging in our summer schools, where other nuclearworld experts were invited into say things that sometimes felt far too simple. And without wanting to reinscribe all social scientists as critics, it felt important to get a critical position in view. That meant finding ways to speak within a polarized nuclear scene where social science is a pretty low-status, half-formalized thing. There were times when my language reflected real frustration—frustration of my own, and that of decades of social scientists before me. Within the PAGES project we had discussions about “nuclear socio-engineering,” something that some of our colleagues thought we should be doing in order to generate trust and public acceptance for the nuclear field. The concluding slides of my presentations—everything always has to be presented in powerpoint—sometimes marched through a set of sharply phrased bullets, seeing how far I could exploit my license to speak.

This was an effective way to make certain points. When I used this slide (Fig. 21.4), it kept the NE graduate students and postdocs in the room for several hours. Some of the above bullets showed up in other PAGES participants' powerpoints later, attributed to this presentation I gave. The move to frame things aggressively worked, I am guessing, because within the PAGES group and some parts of the Berkeley NE community there was already a basis for trust, so that I was something more than a frustrated outsider expressing critical views.

And on the public side, it was instructive when my frustration met others'. The 2009 summer school focused on “Radioactive Waste Disposal with SocialScientific Literacy” [25]. It came just months after the US Department of Energy announced its intention to terminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. The radwaste community was raw with frustration about what was seen as irrational, emotion-driven political interference with good technical work. The tone filtered in and out of a packed program of lectures—rarely in the powerpoints, sometimes in the Q&A, everywhere in conversations in hallways, break times, and meals. It felt like one way to address it, without getting it aimed at myself, was to use a spot in the closing panel to reflect “ethnographically.” (I should acknowledge that while I draw on and learn from ethnographic methods in science and technology studies, I am not formally trained in them and put the word in quotation marks out of respect for those who are).

An (interpretive) social scientist looks

at nuclear waste management – Final observations


There's a context and a history to how NE statements are received.

Outsiders hear salesmanship or tendentious representation.

Past confidence that's been proved wrong, past faith that's been betrayed.

Narratives of unbroken progress may not be in your best interest.

The bottleneck in public acceptance probably isn't knowledge. It's trust.


You may wish that radwaste were just a technical problem – but that's not an effective way of dealing with it.

You can analyze the social world in terms that make intuitive sense to you as an engineer – but you may well miss important things.

You'll do better taking up social science if you deal with its different perspective – not just try to turn it to engineering purposes.

Fig. 21.4 A concluding slide, late 2008 [24]

What do you – specifically, your virtuoso practitioners – do about it?

(Virtuoso: act deftly, comfortably in their own skin, successfully)

• Know what they can deliver

• Know their stuff

• Know what they can't deliver

• Meet their interlocutors where they are

• Listen (sorry, again)

• Real feedback channel

• Respect

• What if you can't (or don't want to) do this?

• Might it just be better to leave the job to someone who can?

Fig. 21.5 A concluding slide, 2009 PAGES summer school

Struggling hard to be constructive, I ended up with this slide (Fig. 21.5) about (generic) nuclear situations where relations between those two supposedly different things, technology and society, seemed so profoundly frayed.

Actually, the final, cranky bullet point was left undisplayed. It was better to have held it back. The most instructive thing about the summer school was a quiet remark by Joonhong Ahn pointing out that nuclear engineers often feel powerless vis-à-vis societal forces. I had been assuming that social scientists were the only powerless ones.

In truth, much social science scholarship on things nuclear is voiced as critique from below. That is justified in so many ways. At the same time it constrains the repertoire by reinscribing a polarization that blocks other kinds of engagement. Kohta Juraku, one of the core social scientists in PAGES, kept prodding us to try another way: start from the shared value of doing better for the public, de-privilege all participants' contributions, and stop making immediate recourse to the move of critique.[3] Even when this felt impossibly sunny, the reminder was useful. There is a kind of second-order complacency in a lot of critical social science—the world is what it is and will not be practically changed by our work until our views are recognized as right. In PAGES we were grappling with ways to jar that complacency. Ultimately it was jarred from the outside.

  • [1] On cross-disciplinary collaboration in engineering education see Borrego and Newswander 2008 [23]. As much as my own instinct is to dig into the “literacy” framing, I took it as a zerothorder approximation I could work with. It did significant work for the team that pulled together the GoNERI social scientific component before I was involved.
  • [2] Years of discussions with Gene Rochlin and Todd LaPorte made this point clear to me. For Japanese reflections see Oda 2014 in this volume [4].
  • [3] Developing this point in both directions, see Juraku [26].
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