By Sonia Bussu, Sciencewise Researcher
There is growing interest internationally in public engagement practice in science and technology. A number of countries are experimenting with different methods of engagement, through institutional channels and programmes or on the initiative of civil society. Across countries, this new enthusiasm for public engagement is often a response to regulatory failures, such as the GM controversy. But it also reflects the need to ensure new developments in science and technology, which can have profound societal repercussions, can be shaped through public input to respond better to societal needs and values.
At the EU level, there is also growing interest in public engagement on these issues, as attested to by the emphasis on concepts such as Responsible Research and Innovation, which among other things entails ongoing involvement of society, from beginning to end of the innovation process. There are number of EU-funded projects mapping engagement practice and promoting active engagement under Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation.
A new Sciencewise paper explores the state of play of public engagement in science and technology and highlights how the local cultural and political context will often shape the type of engagement. The paper identifies five types of institutional public engagement, based on how much agency is given to the public.
1. Science communication (e.g. science festivals; science museums’ activities etc.);
2. Discussion between researchers and the general public (e.g. the work of the Swiss National Science Foundation; science cafés etc.);
3. Involve lay people in assessment of new science and technologies (e.g. online and offline user panels and focus groups);
4. Gauge the opinions of the lay public to inform policy makers (e.g. Sciencewise’s public dialogues; the Danish Board of Technology’s consensus conference; TA-Swiss’ publifocus);
5. Co-production of knowledge and/or development of solutions through collaboration between different stakeholders, including service users and affected people (e.g. the work of the Risk Dialogue Foundation in Switzerland; Mind-Lab in Denmark and the UK equivalent, Nesta’s Innovation lab).
Different countries often have a preference for different engagement methods. For instance, Japan and Germany – although there is increasing effort from institutional and academic quarters alike to engage with the public - have a more conservative understanding of scientific knowledge and tend to be quite deferential to scientific expertise. By contrast, Scandinavian countries have a long tradition of inclusion of different stakeholders in decision-making and they have developed really innovative participatory methods, such as the Danish Board of Technology’s consensus conference and World Wide Views.
The consensus conference is one of the earliest attempts to include the input of lay citizens on decision-making to assess technologies with clear ethical and societal implications. Where issues are value-laden the public’s expertise can be most important to assess regulatory requirements.
The World Wide Views method is a multisite citizen consultation where citizens in different countries debate the same policy-related questions on the same day and present their recommendation to both the national and international level of policy making. As legislation on issues such as the environment and climate change increasingly happens at a supranational level, this type of cross-national cooperation on international agendas is increasingly relevant.
The paper also highlights that the UK fares well in terms of innovative engagement and it’s often perceived abroad as a best practice case. The UK can count on a number of public engagement champions, such as the research councils, universities, thinks tanks and trusts such as the Wellcome Trust. The government-funded programmes Sciencewise actively promotes public dialogue among government departments. In the paper we compare Sciencewise’s model of engagement to similar organisations in other countries (e.g. Danish Board of Technology. Norway’s Board of Technology, the Netherlands’ Rathenau Instituut, and TA-Swiss), to highlight differences, similarities and learning points:
• All these organisations use a broad range of engagement methods including focus groups, citizen panels and consensus conferences.
• Unlike other organisations, Sciencewise supports government departments to carry out public dialogues linked to their own policy agendas, and co-funds those public dialogues.
• Other organisations tend to have a broader agenda and work with other actors at home and abroad around local, national and, increasingly, international agendas.
There is still much work to do, as many UK government departments struggle to move beyond traditional decision-making and working in siloes. There is a still a lack of institutional capacity to address the results of public engagement and make the most of the qualitative evidence that emerges from these processes. But the case for public engagement appears to have been won in the UK and abroad, as it is now widely recognised that science is deeply embedded in society and public views are crucial to ensure new technological developments respond to society’s interest.