Citizen participation in the management of science and technology became a key component of public and collective action. The participatory ideal is now mobilized at almost every level, by NGOs, watchdog groups, trade unions, by techno-entrepreneurs, science policy proponents, EU bureaucrats and even by candidates to presidential elections.
Since the end of the 1980s, the STS field has played a pioneer role in the promotion of public participation as a modernized way of governing science and technology. Most of the literature produced within this context was based on the hypothesis that more public participation would necessarily lead to the empowerment of public and to a democratization of science. This paper questions such correlation. Empowerment is analysed, in this frame, as a vague, even ‘powerless’ notion (despite the idea of power it incorporates), given the fact that it was largely ‘normalized’ by international bodies and industrial actors, thus differing from its first theorizations by the social movements (social workers, feminists, development NGOs, trade union movements ...) as a means to transform the social order and power relations. In line with recent critical work calling for a deconstruction of institutional discourses, for a critical analysis of the official framings, and for a re-evaluation of the participatory ‘ideal’ in relation to the politico-economic context that gave birth to it, this paper takes seriously the cases in which public participation does not necessarily allow a democratization of science, but rather serves to increase the social acceptability of a controversial innovation,6 to restore public trust vis-à-vis science, to dictate narrow frames of debate’ on technological innovation8 or to shift towards a lesser commitment of the state in public health protection, thanks to an increased commitment by ‘empowered citizens'.