Public interest and science

Week 8

Learning objectives:

  • Define “public interest”
  • Explain the roles of government and markets in pursuing the public interest
  • Evaluate class interest as a proxy for public interest
  • Explain agnotology
  • Describe the impact of technology policy on security and the public interest

What is the public interest in science and technology policy?


If a company develops weapons technology, should it be allowed to sell it in an open market?  Should technology sales to potential enemy states be restricted, or should potentially damaging technology be restricted as an end in itself, in the same way that the sale of damaging drugs are restricted? The Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) provided means to cooperate in restricting the spread of guided missile technology that might destabilize deterrence, and 34 countries participated. When should states be taken off a restricted list? How do we know if the policies of a receiving state are sufficiently robust to permit purchase of potentially damaging technology?

What about foreign (or multinational) ownership, control, or influence over industries that are important either to national defence, or to innovation, employment, and balance of trade for a country?  Nokia was important to Finland’s national industrial strategy, but was purchased by Microsoft (April 2014) and has now stopped making phones in Finland (July 2015) and moved production to China.

These are some of the questions that link our examination of public interest with questions of security.

The interaction of governments as the representatives of interests, markets as mechanisms for managing information and distributing wealth, and the aggregation and articulation of interests by groups like investors, pensioners, trade-unionists, and capital owners has been the subject of philosophical and economic inquiry since the industrial revolution, including thinking by the major progenitors of economic liberalism: David Hume, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo.

Mark Blythe, a Scottish economist who has made his name as a skeptic about austerity policies, provides a useful summary of the ways in which class interest have been dressed up as irrefutable economic theory. For the property owning capitalist, government presents a dilemma: you can’t have secure property without it; you’re worried it can take you property away; and you have to pay for it (as Blythe writes, you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it, and you have to pay for it!).

As economic interests and governments have become more powerful and more global, they have sought to influence thinking about what is in the “public” interest.  Lukes (1975) describes three dimensions of power, which in today’s language we might label hard power, soft power, and (the most important) the unconscious frameworks within which decisions are made.  It is this third dimension which encompasses ideology of free markets that benefit everyone and belief in the inherent inefficiencies of government in comparison to the private sector.  Conversely, the ideology of an oppressive and exploitative capitalism and a beneficent government might be equally pervasive at different times and places, shaping unconsciously the decisions and debates of key actors.

It is in this context that we should understand the potential utility and impact of “agnotology” – study of culturally induced doubt and ignorance – as a way of shaping perceptions of the public interest. In public policy based on science, two cases stand out – the tobacco industry’s resistance to evidence of the health impact of smoking, and the oil industry’s resistance to evidence of human-induced global warming. Mirowski argues that a “neo-liberal thought collective” responsible for the financial crash of 2008 and the massive transfer of public wealth to private banking, insurance, and financial concerns is responsible for agnotological manipulation of perceptions of the public interest. Jason Reitman’s 2005 movie, Thank you for smoking” satirizes the lobbying industry that keeps alcohol, tobacco, and firearms in business in America. It’s fun.

To come to the required reading, Ken Holmes carefully dissects the problem of foreign ownership, control and influence (FOCI) from a risk-management perspective.  Note the careful language of the Forward, required by the CMA designation. Read the executive summary fully and skim the remainder of the report.

Required reading

Holmes, Ken (2012) Foreign Ownership Control and Influence in the 21st Century: Analysis of Risk, Technical, and Organizational Requirements. Ottawa: Industrial Security Sector, Public Works and Government Services.  Executive summary.

Optional reading

Blythe, Mark (2012) Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. London: Oxford University Press. Preface,  Smith brings the state back in.

George, Susan (2015)  Shadow Sovereigns: How Global Corporations are Seizing Power. Cambridge, UK: Polity. Chapter 2: “Transnational Treaties: Tailored by and for transnational corporations,

Harrison, K., & Hoberg, G. (1994). Risk, science, and politics: Regulating toxic substances in Canada and the United States. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Jasanoff, S. (Ed.). (2004). States of knowledge: the co-production of science and the social order. Routledge.

Lukes, Steven (1974) Power: A Radical View. “Introduction” (A conceptual analysis of power) Toronto: Macmillan

Mirowski, Philip (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How neo-liberalism survived the financial meltdown. London: Vero. See the extract on agnotology and economics.

Reitman, Jason (2005) Thank you for Smoking, (Comedy, 92 minutes) offers a fun example of agnotology in practice.

Rothkopf, David (2012) Power, Inc: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government – and the reckoning that lies ahead. Toronto: Viking. Introduction: Bodies but no souls.


Be prepared to discuss foreign ownership, control and influence policies in the context of the public interest.

Self assessment questions

  • How do we know what is in the “public interest”?
  • Who determines the “public interest”?
  • Are there some definitions or concepts of the public interest which are more susceptible to manipulation than others?
  • what are the risks identified by Holmes?
  • what are the recommendations for addressing them?
  • do the risks and recommendations have implications for departments other than PWGSC?


Participation evaluation for week 5 Toolkit will consist of:

  • 60s: What is the public interest in permitting foreign investment, and what is the public interest in constraining it?
  • 60s: Do the risks Holmes identifies affect public or private interests?
  • 60c: Take the opposing view.
  • 5R: The recommendations for risk mitigation in the Holmes FOCI report are primarily addressed towards PWGSC.  Considering the problem from a whole-of-government, national security perspective, what additional measures might be appropriate?  Discuss for 5 minutes. Present the results in 60s. There is an opportunity for a minority report as a 60c

Questions and discussion