Should fusion be democratised?

Should citizens be involved as decision-makers in the development of fusion energy technologies? At first you might not think so. After all, how could people with no expertise on this topic meaningfully contribute to the development of such complex technologies? Adam Termote, a postgraduate in the environmental social sciences with a keen interest in the politics and democratic implications of scientific and technical solutions to issues surrounding climate change, looks into answering the question. "I am fascinated by the prospect of fusion and its wider social and political significance," he says. The article is one the 11 stories featured in the special edition Fusion Writers' edition of Fusion In Europe.

Citizen Participation in the Development of Fusion Energy

This year, I set out to study the need and potential for citizen participation in fusion development. I started by engaging with people inside the fusion community (public and private, scientists and communicators), as well as people outside fusion (from politicians to regular citizens). Afterwards, I concluded that fusion energy development both can and should open up to involve citizens as decision-makers that inform the development of fusion energy technologies.

Why I reached these conclusions is firstly a matter of politics. I’m a student of the social sciences, and a salient topic in this field is the social and political nature of scientific knowledge and the technologies into which this knowledge is invested. This is counterintuitive: we like to believe that science is objective, and that technological innovation follows a pre-determined and linear path of progression as science reveals more and more about the nature of reality. Such assumptions are evident in claims that fusion is the ‘holy grail’ of energy production – that is, an end point on the one-way path of technological innovations for the production of energy.

Yet history defies these assumptions. Scientific investigation and technological development do not follow pre-laid paths, but develop in multiple, unpredictable directions. This is because they are practiced by humans within social networks, and are therefore driven by particular human values, preferences and assumptions about the world and how it should be. For this reason, the social sciences consider science and technologies to also be social and political, which is a realisation that encourages us to question why we limit scientific and technological decision-making and governance (how we decide how a technology develops) to technical experts alone.

In this regard, there have been calls to democratise decision-making processes in technological innovations by opening them up to citizen participation so that the developmental trajectories of these innovations can be collectively determined and guided towards socially desirable ends. These calls make the case for citizen participation on the basis that those who may be affected by, and who often fund (through taxes) such innovations should have a say in the way they are developed. Moreover, collective decision-making would make these innovations more robust and accountable when faced with the prospect of unforeseen consequences arising from the introduction of new technologies into society.

The reason citizen participation experiments are successful in this way relates to social science’s observation that science and technologies are social and political. Because this is so, the decisions made in technological innovations are rarely entirely technical; they have social elements, too. For this reason, a variety of citizens, with varied experiences, expertise and ways of looking at the problem at hand, produces a greatly enriched decision-making process that counters the blind-spots of technical experts. On this basis, science as a whole – and fusion in particular – should move away from models of engagement that treat the public as a passive audience. Instead, moves should be made towards participatory models that enable the public to meaningfully influence developmental decisions and trajectories. Fusion should be democratised.

Achieving this is a huge challenge. Technological innovations (fusion included) are firmly rooted in the assumption that development processes are purely technical domains in which scientists and engineers (as the only valuable decision-makers) pursue technically optimal solutions. Democratising fusion requires re-orienting this assumption so that the aim of development is not to produce a technology that is technically perfect, but one which is responsible, desirable and accountable to the society into which it is to be introduced, and to which the technology ultimately belongs. This means shifting from the pursuit of technically-optimal solutions determined by a handful of technical experts, to workable and equitable solutions determined collectively. As a technology intended for the benefit of everyone in society, it is incumbent on fusion to experiment with these practices.

Democratisation however, should not be approached as a reluctant concession on the part of those currently developing fusion technologies. Instead, citizen participation promises insightful surprises and enriching engagements that would broaden the potential of what fusion energy could look like and how society could relate to this exciting and ground-breaking technology. Through my research, I gained an overwhelmingly optimistic sense that fusion could become a model for a way of doing technological development that is more engaged, integrated and democratic. Participation presents an invaluable opportunity to bring fusion into intimate relation with the public at a time when the technology is of growing importance.

Scientific investigation and technological development do not follow pre-laid paths, but develop in multiple, unpredictable directions. This is because they are practiced by humans within social networks, and are therefore driven by particular human values, preferences and assumptions about the world and how it should be.

Example

Following these calls, experiments with citizen participation in technological decision-making have been conducted in matters from geoengineering to nanotechnology, and even for asteroid redirection missions at NASA. Under the supervision of scientists and engineers, these experiments informed groups of citizens on genuine developmental problems, allowing their responses and reasoning to influence experts tasked with making the final decisions. Despite the inherently complex nature of the issues involved, these experiments found citizens’ responses to be highly insightful and valuable. They were able to contribute to the direction of technological development whilst moving scientists and engineers to question the underlying values motivating their decisions, and to consider the wider social implications of their technical choices.