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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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3.4 Consensus conference on plant biotechnology

The first UKNCC (at Regent's College) was hosted by the Science Museum and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The conference was based on a procedural model developed by the Danish Board of Technology. In Denmark, consensus conferences are held regularly and can be seen to have had unequivocal effects on policy making. Indeed, in a number of instances, Parliament has explicitly incorporated lay-panel recommendations in legislation. For example, lay-panel reports on food irradiation and genetic modification suggested that government funding should not be allocated to these technologies. These recommendations were subsequently endorsed by the Danish Parliament (Grundahl, 1995).

The UKNCC lay panel was recruited through advertisements placed in regional newspapers. Although the lay panel in a consensus conference obviously is not statistically representative, participants are selected to form a cross-section of the population based on factors such as age, gender, education, area of residence and interest. There were over 400 applicants to serve on the panel for the first UKNCC, of which 16 were selected by a steering committee.

The lay-panel members became ‘informed’ about plant biotechnology through written information and preliminary meetings prior to the conference itself. The panel then framed the questions they wanted to pose to experts whom they nominated to attend the consensus conference. The conference itself was run along judicial lines: experts were called to provide evidence and were cross-examined by the panel in front of an audience. The final phase involved the lay panel writing a report which was subsequently published and distributed to politicians, scientists, industrialists, journalists and anyone else likely to be interested.

Reading 2

Click to read Geoffrey Lee's account of the consensus conference [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . The author was a lay-panel member for the first UKNCC and chaired the report-writing session. As you read through his account of the process, make a note of what he felt the priorities of lay-panel members were. How might these differ from other participants in the conference (e.g. steering panel, experts, media and evaluators)?

The lay-panel's consensus statement gave short responses to the seven questions posed by the panel at the start of the process (examples of these questions include: what impact could plant biotechnology have on the consumer?; what moral problems are raised by plant biotechnology?; what are the prospects for effective regulation?). A consensus statement is, by definition, a position on which the panel reaches agreement. A drawback of this approach is that the statement often turns out to be rather bland and lacks bold proposals, given that the panel is unlikely to be able to reach agreement on radical or controversial suggestions. And this proved to be so with the UKNCC; the lay-panel report was informative and contained several recommendations for policy, but did not propose anything particularly innovative.

Although the lay-panel report was widely circulated to politicians, the impact in terms of influence on policy of this conference was negligible (Durant, 1999). However, some valuable lessons were learnt, including:

  • the necessity for a political commitment to take lay-panel recommendations seriously;

  • the importance of choosing a topic where a debate is timely and opportune. However, setting up the first UKNCC at that time reflected an interest in the idea of consensus conferences, rather than a pressing need at that time to intervene in policy making on plant biotechnology;

  • the need to consider how to manage more effectively the process of consensus conferences in the UK context (perceptions about the independence of the steering committee and the lay panel, media influences, timescales, etc.).

Although the first UKNCC seemed to have little measurable long-term impact, there is no doubt that the second one on radioactive waste addressed some of the key lessons learned from the first UKNCC, the result of which had a much more substantial impact on policy.