Biotechnology & Democracy

Democracy and biotechnology – the austrian biotech conflict in an international perspective

Today's liberal democracies face two major challenges:


First, the free circulation of money, goods and knowledge curtails political action at the level of the nation state, depriving conventional policy-making of its capacity to realise democratic decisions. Secondly, the complexity of decisions increases. Particularly in the domain of technology policy they become opaque matters for the ordinary citizen, and a vested domain of highly specialised expert-elites. The globalisation of the economy brings with it the supra- and internationalisation of politics and we observe the emergence of a new type of political conflict, marked by a paradox: On the one hand, these conflicts are imbued with scientific arguments, dependent on scientific expertise and explanation. On the other hand, they stubbornly resist scientific resolution, since science finds itself unable to cope with the hidden value disputes driving these conflicts, while at the same time non-scientific, "political" claims remain at the margins of the debate.

The Austrian conflict over genetic engineering provided an exemplary case to illustrate the two challenges. After long years of public silence about matters of biotechnology, the first release of a genetically modified plant in early 1996 triggered considerable media activity and public resistance to agricultural biotechnology in particular and genetic engineering in general. A subsequent anti-biotech public initiative finally brought a resounding victory for the opponents of the technology.

This study pursued a comprehensive description of that conflict. Given the premises above it had to have a large scope. Confining itself solely to the Austrian events would have missed the essential questions. Thus, it took account of the long-term evolution of the political controversy over biotechnology, i.e. its early beginning in the seventies until the present day, its various locations, i.e. the US, the European nation states, the EC and EU, respectively, the international organisations involved and political arenas. (OECD, GATT, WTO, Rio etc.) Furthermore, it described and analysed developments among international expert-publics, particularly the evolution of risk-concepts in various branches of regulatory science. The interplay between public opinion, politics and science/technology was the focus of attention.

There is also an emphasis on Austrian developments in the same period: the deliberations of the Parliamentary Enquiry Commission, the first and only one in Austria's political history, the subsequent phase of law making, the mobilisation of the Austrian public in the course of the campaign in the forefront of the public initiative, and finally its political consequences. Another empirical research question was whether the particularly cautious Austrian EU-policy regarding biotechnology had any impact on EU policy.

Finally, the study took up recent developments at international level. It provided a glimpse into the cascade of anti-biotech mobilisations which appeared among the general public of several European countries such as France, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Luxembourg. It sketched a picture of the international trade conflict over genetically modified food between Europe and the US during the last years of the 20th century.

The last section undertook an analysis of the international as well as Austrian conflict over genetic engineering under the conceptual premises of democratic theory arriving at an ambivalent conclusion.

01/1999 - 12/2000