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Difficult Data: Boundary Dynamics, Public Engagement and Bridging Technologies in a Science/Policy Controversy

Abstract

In 2001, the New Zealand Ministry of Health (MoH) contracted the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Ltd. (ESR) to undertake a serum dioxin study to determine exposure (current and historical) to dioxins for residents living in close proximity to the former Ivon Watkins Dow chemical plant in Paritutu, New Plymouth. In the years that the plant had operated, a number of activist groups had organised in the community to ask the government to respond to their concerns about possible exposure and any links to adverse health effects. The members of these groups were angry and frustrated. They distrusted industry and the various government agencies involved, and felt that previous scientific studies had marginalised their concerns. This paper explores the processes that enabled ESR to work with the community to produce a robust scientific study. Key dynamics, lessons, methods and mechanisms critical to the success of this intervention are appraised. This paper offers theoretical reflection on boundary work between science, policy and community and focuses on the challenges in including local knowledge to produce ‘useable knowledge’ in this case.

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