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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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5 How might dialogue move on from GM Nation?

There is a widespread optimism that ‘lessons have been learnt from the GM Nation? Debate’ – indeed the government's response to the exercise was couched in just those terms (DEFRA, 2004). One concern has been touched on already – many felt that the debate took place too late, on a rushed timetable, at a time in the controversy when the debate had become highly polarised and divisive ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ stances already embedded. This late in the day, questions for public discussion tend to be restricted in scope, often focused on issues of risk assessment and ‘too late to alter the developmental trajectories of a technology’ (Wilsdon and Willis, 2004). Some of the bigger questions, such as the need for particular technologies, what vested interested are at work and what ‘value’ might be attached to particular scientific and technological innovation, remain unexplored. Post-GM Nation? the call is therefore for more ‘upstream’ engagement of the public in policy making – at a stage where key, early decisions are yet to be made. Many feel that recent establishment of a citizen's jury to consider the path of future development in nanotechnology shows a promising way forward. Indeed, this venture is currently being held up as an admirable upstream model of public engagement and it will be fascinating to follow whether the high hopes that are now being expressed are realisable in the light of hard practice.

The next reading articulates one vision of how public engagement should move on in future, looking far beyond the experience of the GM Nation? debate and the current nanotechnology consultation. It looks forward to an era of policy making where public involvement does not just inform policy decisions – ‘it helps shape them’. Rather than seeing public involvement as a means of closing down debate (as some saw its role in GM Nation?), it is envisaged as a key role in ‘opening up’ debate, by framing questions that go beyond the usual ‘is it safe?’ scenario into the more problematic arena of non-expert value judgements, such as necessity and desirability.

Reading 5

Read Chapter 3 of See-through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis, which is downloadable (in PDF format) from (pp.37–47), accessed 13 March 2007. The authors are affiliated to DEMOS, which is an independent ‘think-tank’ and describes itself as a ‘greenhouse for new ideas which can improve the quality of our lives’. The early parts of the article add to comments already made about the GM Nation? debate. There is a useful section (in ‘How to engage’) on different methodologies of consultation, which you're likely to be familiar with already. Do you find the arguments put forward in support of the notion of ‘deliberative democracy’ via upstream engagement (pp.46–47) convincing?

In the wake of the publication of See-through Science, with, as you've just read, its championing of upstream engagement; the same organisation published a second publication (Wilsdon et al., 2005). The idea of the public value of science is crucial here – the idea of some form of assessment or debate about the desirability and benefits of particular facets of science. In the authors’ words:

… viewed through a public value lens, engagement might no longer be seen as a ‘brake on progress’ but instead as a way of maintaining and renewing the social contract that supports science. Upstream engagement enables society to discuss and clarify the public value of science. It encourages dialogue between scientists and the public to move beyond competing propositions, to a richer discussion of vision and ends. And it reminds scientists of the contribution that public values can make to the setting of research priorities and trajectories.

(Wilsdon et al., 2005)

The DEMOS Public Value of Science booklet was politely welcomed in many quarters (including the pre-eminent science journal Nature) but the normally sober research publication Research Fortnight (Bown, 2005) presented a hostile response that some saw as articulating the silent fears of many mainstream scientists. Their editorial claimed the DEMOS proposals were ‘Stalinistic’ or indeed worse, given that such political organisations are (in their words) ‘always explicit about questions of power, whereas in engagement studies power is never mentioned. It is evident that scientists are supposed to lose power, but who is supposed to gain it? After years of promotion, it remains unclear what the muddle of engagement actually is. If we go back, it is clear that the old Public Understanding of Science agenda was hopelessly patronising. At the same time, it was clear that the story of GM crops in this country was a disaster. We need to do something, but in choosing engagement we took a wrong turn.’

For some, the ferociousness of the criticism from Research Fortnight marks the beginning of what has been dubbed the ‘New Science Wars’. DEMOS pointed out in their reply that ‘the argument for more public engagement has been won’, drawing attention to the undeniable fact that the Office of Science and Technology, the Research Councils and august organisations such as the Wellcome Trust ‘are all experimenting with new approaches’. But what, of course, is still uncertain is how the processes of engagement are viewed and experienced by the different parties involved, and how the differing perspectives and expectations might be brought together. By this measure, the mention of power in the comments in Research Fortnight seems highly appropriate. But for DEMOS:

… this agenda is not about imposing cumbersome bureaucratic structures on science, or forcing lay people onto every research funding committee. Questions about structures do need to be considered, but are a sideshow compared with the far more important – and exciting – challenge of building more reflective capacity into the practice of science. As well as bringing the public into new conversations with science, we need to bring out the public within the scientist – by enabling scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work.

(Wilsdon et al., 2005, p.35)

What is certain is that engagement will only be effective if sound and attractive means of engaging the public are developed. There is a high premium therefore on developing new means of engagement and we'll end this course by looking at just one novel example that reflects the innovative thinking and bold experimentation currently underway.