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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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3 Consensus conferences

3.1 Introduction

On an autumnal morning in November 1994, a group of people gathered at Regent's College, London, conscious that they were making history. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss an important issue: plant biotechnology and how it should be regulated in the UK. At the time, the genetic engineering of plants was emerging as a technology of great potential for the development of new pest-resistant, higher yield crops, although the technique hadn't attracted the degree of media attention and public disquiet that characterised the debate in later years. What was unusual was that this 1994 meeting did not consist of the typical mix of policy advisers – politicians, scientists, interest groups and industrialists. Here, the key participants included a road sweeper, an airline pilot, an A-level student and a retired engineer. These were all members of a 16-member strong ‘lay panel’ for the UK's first national consensus conference (UKNCC).

This consensus conference is worthy of our attention for a number of reasons. The initiative was one of the first in a movement in the UK that sought to involve (rather than merely consult) the public in decision making about science and technology. The conference was seen as an experimental, practical alternative to initiatives based on the deficit model of public understanding of science. The UKNCC is also a useful subject of study because the process and outcomes were thoroughly evaluated (Joss, 2002). In addition, it provides a useful point of comparison with other participatory mechanisms mentioned in this course.

Consensus conferences are a form of ‘participatory technology assessment’, a term that has gained currency since the 1990s in policy-making circles. It recognises that, in democratic society, citizens should have a say in the regulation of technologies that have social consequences and the development of which is often publicly funded. The subsections that follow will examine the first two UK national consensus conferences, as examples of participatory mechanisms. How effective were they at involving lay voices in decisions about the regulation of new technology? Is the consensus conference a practical means of achieving public engagement in science and technology policy?