Consensus Conferences are a method of technology assessment developed by the Danish Board of Technology. They allow a small group of citizens to question a panel of specialists about controversial new areas of science and technology. At the end of the conference, the citizens write a report setting out their expectations, concerns and recommendations. This is then tabled in Parliament and shared with other key decision makers and the media. An important feature of this model is that citizens’ set the agenda, including the choice of questions and selection of witnesses.
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Best practice examples
BBSRC and the Science Museum commissioned a UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology in 1994. The lay panel gave the field of plant biotechnology its qualified support, advocating tightening up the regulations governing the release of genetically modified plants into the environment, establishing effective international controls over the commercial exploitation of plant varieties, and providing consumers with clear and comprehensible information about new biotechnological products.
Use a Consensus Conference:
• To incorporate the perspectives of ordinary members of society into the assessment of new scientific and technology developments
• To address issues that are seen as controversial, complex or expert dominated
Don’t use a Consensus Conference:
• When you require results that are representative of society as a whole. Consensus Conferences only involve a small number of participants and their views are not representative of wider population.
How to run a consensus conference
Consensus Conferences require a significant amount of planning in advance of the events, including time to put in place appropriate governance structures and secure the attendance of relevant expert witnesses. This usually takes around six months, while the Consensus Conference itself lasts for around three days.
2 Steering Committee
Consensus Conferences are overseen by a Steering Committee with responsibility for ensuring the events are fairly run. This committee usually consists of 3-5 people with specialist knowledge of the conference topic. Tasks of the committee include approving selection of participants, ensuring that they are provided with unbiased and adequate introductory material, drawing up a list of specialists for citizens to draw on, and approving the programme for the conference.
3 Selecting participants
Consensus Conferences advertise for participants and interested members of the public submit short applications. The final group of citizens is selected from these applicants with a view to ensuring a balance of socio-demographic criteria including age, gender, education, occupation and area of residence. Citizens are compensated for loss of income. Applicants are screened to ensure they do not have any prior special interest in the topic at hand. This process does not provide for a statistically representative sample of the population, but it does ensure a diversity of views are represented.
4 Participants set the agenda
Participants meet for the first time two to three months in advance of the Consensus Conference itself. This is an opportunity to learn about the process and the topic at hand. Participants then meet a second time in advance of the conference to decide on focus areas of interest and the specialists that they would like to question at the event.
5 Holding the Consensus Conference
The Consensus Conference is an open event (attended by media) and has a number of key components:
• Presentations by specialists addressing questions formulated by participants (over the course of the day, the Conference will hear 10-15 presentations)
• Opportunities to ask for clarification of material provided, and further supplementary questions
• Writing and discussion of the contents of the final report, supported by a facilitator. This process aims at reaching consensus through open discussion, and minority opinions are allowed only when there are wide differences of option
• Citizens then present their report to the Conference
• Finally, the specialists and the audience have an opportunity to questions to and discuss the report’s conclusions with the participants.
Following the conference, the report is sent to members of Parliament, other decision makers and the media.
What’s required of policy makers?
Policy-makers may be asked to:
• Assist with the production of materials to support citizens to learn about the topic in question
• Present evidence or answer questions during the Consensus Conference.
Consensus Conferences allow citizens to set the agenda, determining the areas of interest and questions that matter to them. They are also run using a transparent process that builds trust in findings. This has the benefit of opening up policy questions in complicated areas of science and technology, allowing for discussion of issues that may have otherwise been ignored. As the Consensus Conference is open to the public, the process is also useful for encouraging wider public outreach and debate of issues.