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When will the sheep safely graze?

12 May 2009

The Guardian today reports that restrictions are still in place on 369 hill sheep farms related to contamination from Chernobyl. A farmer in North Wales describes how “”I remember a meeting with civil servants at the time [1986] and got the impression they thought it would be short-lived. No-one had any idea it would go on this long.”

In the early 1990s, Brian Wynne wrote a series of defining pieces in the ‘contextual’ public understanding of science research discussing Chernobyl fallout and sheep farming in Cumbria. He described how local knowledge of farming conditions was ignored by mainstream scientific advice to government and farmers about the persistence of contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Wynne 1992). Wynne describes how assertions from government scientists that the problem would clear up in weeks contradicted farmers’ own knowledges about the contingenices of farming in the Lake District, and took no account of the idiosyncratic features of area. The ‘one-size fits all’ model adopted by the scientists undermined the status of local lay knowledges, and created disillusionment with scientist’s ability to predict and manage risks. The study forms the basis for the ‘contextual public understanding of science’, in which public reception, perception and use of scientific knowledge are seen as not only related to the public’s formal understanding of its content, to “the forms of institutional embedding, patronage, organisation and control of scientific knowledge” (Wynne, 1992:42).

Wynne, B. 1992. “Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science.” Public Understanding of Science 1:304, 281.

Wynne, B. 1996. “May the sheep safely graze? A reflexive view of the expert-lay knowledge divide.” Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology 44–83.