Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 What should dialogue with the public aim to achieve?

The publication Public Dialogue on Science and Technology, published in 2002 by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), states:

Proponents put forward two basic arguments in favour of dialogue. The first is that traditional consultation tends to be unattractive to many people and draws only on ‘predictable’ sources. They argue that dialogue can provide new opportunities for people who may be affected by decisions on new S&T to have their voices heard – particularly in shaping decisions in their own terms, establishing two-way relationships with policy makers and specialists, and fostering learning.

Second, as scientific knowledge is subject to inherent uncertainties, science-based decision making involves making subjective judgements such as the original framing of the issue, the questions to ask, and the assumptions made in carrying out the work. Many argue that exposing these assumptions to open and critical public scrutiny will lead to more rigorous science.

(POST, 2002)

Activity 1

With these hopes in mind, which of the following do you think is a legitimate aim for dialogue, in advance of policy making? Are there factors that you feel are missing from the list?

  1. To decide whether particular scientific initiatives ought to be pursued, by opening up scientific progress to democratic public control.

  2. To determine government policy on socially divisive issues.

  3. To spread responsibility for decision making, such that if there were problems at the implementation stage, responsibility would be shared between government and the public.

  4. To increase the authority of science and scientists, for example by explaining the importance of processes such as peer review and encouraging the public to adopt more ‘rational’ ways of evaluating risk.

  5. As a counter to the opinions of experts in the field, by taking on board ‘local’ factors and ‘feelings’ that experts are likely to overlook.

  6. To allow a full range of experts – for example, scientists, social scientists, students of ethics – plus non-experts, to debate issues of common concern.


Perhaps there would be ready consensus about rather little of this and we're wary of leaping to premature conclusions! However, we suspect that aim 6 would attract the widest support, though if the object is restricted to debate alone, dialogue events could be little more than ‘talking shops’. Aim 5 would also surely get support, though dividing the parties into ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ risks unnecessarily polarising views and debate. Aims 3 and 4 strike us as inappropriate objectives for dialogue; aim 4 seems to set up a one-way conversation – the deficit model of PUS by another name. Aim 3 suggests that getting the public ‘on board’ might absolve decision makers of responsibility if things were to go wrong. Indeed some critics fear that dialogue could prove to be an excuse for delaying decision making, or be used as a means of ‘out-flanking’ potential opposition and perhaps deflect blame onto participating citizens if things go wrong; all such dangers have been disparagingly termed ‘the deliberative fix’.

Aim 2 might be the objective of some participants, but while most agree that it would be an unwise government that flew in the face of public opinion, the official line is that rather than determine policy, dialogue aims to inform it. To some, aim 1 suggests that dialogue is to be used as a means of democratic control of the work that scientists do or do not do; for others, making science accountable is the key point – part of what some see as a welcome ‘democratisation’ of science. Most scientists would be wary of any such step although others might ask if there is no prospect of ‘minds being changed’ – to the point perhaps where a piece of work or its application is discouraged or prevented – what is the point of discussion of this type?

So who gains from dialogue? Perhaps there is an underlying moral imperative for scientists to commit to the notion of dialogue. Sir Aaron Klug, President of the Royal Society, in 2000, puts forward just such a point of view:

Dialogue is about science's licence to practice. Science is, necessarily, run by scientists but it is ultimately society that allows science to go ahead and we need to make sure that it goes on doing so. So we need input from non-experts to make sure that we are aware of the boundaries of our licence; and conversely, we need good channels of communication if we want to extend those boundaries, for example into new areas of research such as embryonic stem cells or new research methods, such as GM plants and animals.

(Klug, 2001)

The idea that the work of scientists is in some sense ‘validated’ by public consent is a lofty ideal, but the more pragmatic motives are apparent too in the latter part of Klug's quote. It's possible to read into his words that the public has to be ‘with us’, or ‘on our side’, if new research and applications are to go ahead without significant public disquiet. And what of government? If research programmes have strong commercial repercussions, then government (and academia) within the UK is likely to have a particular interest in public support, as commercial opportunities risk being lost. In the UK, for example, the government is currently looking for returns on its 2004 Science and Innovation Investment Framework; in the words of the Council for Science and Technology, March 2005, these returns will be ‘at risk if there is not broad public support for its policies in areas related to science and technology’. Professor Mark Welland, a leading academic researcher from the University of Cambridge, has expressed sentiments of just this type in relation to nanotechnology – the science of the very small – announcing that a ‘citizens' jury’ is to be established, which offers an opportunity to ‘rule’ on benefits and risks of nanotechnology:

In this race to exploit the technology, it is crucial that potential risks, hazards and consequences are addressed in a timely and comprehensive fashion. We have learned lessons from other areas such as GM, where science, exploitation and public concerns have been disconnected from each other.

(Welland, Guardian, G2, 19 May 2005)

Of course, addressing risk and benefits in a methodical way is an attractive proposition – partly because dialogue events would thereby acquire a clearer although still problematic focus. But public concerns go beyond issues of risk alone – raising questions such as who benefits, whether such innovations are ‘needed’ and whether changes seem ‘right’. We'll look at these broader issues again later in the course, but first it will be helpful to look at some other examples of dialogue initiatives.