Two days ago, Mark Brown, your other faithful blogger and author of the recent book Science in Democracy, gave a talk about the various approaches to public engagement with science and the theoretical frameworks behind them. Mark described how public engagement projects like consensus conferences are put together with the idea that they can give governments some understanding of the direction that the nation’s populace would like to proceed. These programs are meant to re-inject some democracy into areas that typically seem out of reach for the normal citizen.
There are many different ways these engagements can work, but typically they start with the assumption that in order to ensure that these members of the public can make well grounded decisions, they must get some form of training in the science and technology that the policy is meant to address. For instance, the Center for Nanotechnology for Society’s recent National Citizen’s Technology Forum pre-circulated an 80-page introduction to the fields of nanotechnology and human enhancement to all participants and provided them with several experts who could answer any technical questions they might have. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense… we want the people making the decisions about the future of science and technology to know a little something about them!
This was when Mark made a comment that has haunted me ever since. He pointed out that the more these citizen panels deliberate and learn from technical experts, the less they are like the public they represent. In some sense this is the point. But elected officials then face a problem. If the citizen panel disagrees with public consensus, how should the official vote? Does she choose to follow what a group of people who have reflected on the issue extensively have to say, or does she vote in a manner that will make her constituents happy? If the attitudes of the general public do not change as the attitudes of a citizen panel do, are citizen engagements in science not just a waste of time, but counterproductive? Are those of us who run such programs just going to raise the ire of politicians who nod happily at us when we present our findings and swear at us under their breath as they register their votes?
Thankfully, I received some consolation about this issue last night. Rinie van Est of the Rathenau Institute (and a contributor to the Second Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society that will be coming soon to an online store near you) explained the variety of programs currently being developed in the Netherlands. In some sense he argued that the Netherlands has moved beyond citizen panels. Instead, he and others at the Rathenau Institute are looking for ways to generate general public discussion about new technologies. Their project includes a general analysis of emerging technologies to identify some of the potential issues they raise and then develop ways to get the public to talk about them. Citizen panels are sometimes useful for this, especially if they give a chance for vocal citizens/organizations with a one-sided view to get off some steam and then re-engage in a more level headed way. But there might be other methods as well. For instance, he is especially fearful that the Dutch public will only focus on the environmental health and safety risks in nanotechnology and is seeking to spur a debate that includes broader social questions including equity and justice. If there are no loud Dutch voices talking about such issues, he occasionally courts an NGO from another part of the world to bring their message to the Netherlands.
How exactly this will work is not yet clear. But it is somewhat inspiring to think that an organization like the Rathenau Institute has this broad goal of promoting public dialogue about emerging technology issues. There is certainly a place for consensus conferences as they can play an important role in identifying potential social issues early in the development of a technology. But it is interesting to think of them as just one tool in a larger toolkit that can generate productive discussion for building a better future. It’s interesting to think of the general public as the audience, perhaps even more so than decision-makers.
Mark also suggested that perhaps the reason why we like consensus conferences is that as academics one of our greatest talents is reasoned deliberation about well researched topics. It’s only natural that we’d like to spread that method of decision-making to the public. But of course it is not the only way to arrive at a decision and it is not always the most persuasive.
About the Author: Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor with CSPO and CNS-ASU, and ASU’s School of Human Evolution & Social Change.
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