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Background

The Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre for Public Dialogue in Science and Innovation (Sciencewise) is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). It aims to help policy makers commission and use public dialogue to inform policy decisions involving science and technology issues.

Sciencewise evolved from an original Sciencewise Programme, which was set up in response to a ground-breaking House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report entitled ‘Science and Society,’ published in 2000. The report highlighted the importance of public input into challenging areas of new and emerging science and called for much more meaningful engagement between scientists, policy makers and the public. Until then, public engagement had focused mainly on promoting the ‘public understanding of science.’ This involved the so-called ‘deficit model’, a one-way flow of information from experts to a largely passive public, which did not give people any real voice in decision-making.

The momentum for greater public dialogue was accelerated by the failure of a number of public engagement exercises early this decade, notably the GM Nation debate in 2003. This involved plans to allow the development of genetically-modified crops, which caused a public furore and threw Government policy into disarray.

The ten-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework, published in 2004, subsequently recommended a more systematic approach to public dialogue to address the impact on citizens of rapid scientific developments. The Sciencewise programme was set up that year to fund some initial public dialogue projects that facilitated ‘upstream engagement’ i.e. finding out people’s attitudes and aspirations before major policy decisions are made.

Just two years later, the influential Downing Street advisory group, the Council for Science and Technology, recommended that public dialogue should be firmly embedded into Government policy-making processes. As a result, in December 2006, the Government announced its intention to set up a new Expert Resource Centre for Public Dialogue in Science and Innovation and this led to establishment of the Sciencewise-ERC in May 2007.