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Let’s not scale back consultation on scientific subjects

Fraser Henderson is one of the Institute’s most experienced Associates, and worked with Sciencewise on many projects. Here he explains clearly why we need better dialogue on science and technology as well as the merits of reincarnating the Sciencewise programme.

Science and Technology are at the forefront of what gives the UK a competitive advantage.  It is therefore understandable why the government recently announced an additional £2b a year for research into emerging technologies.

But we are also a nation of early adopters and government is often caught playing ‘catch-up’ when it comes to rely on existing laws and policies for dealing with new societal problems such as the nuisance caused by drones or accidents involving driverless vehicles.

Scientists are encouraged to think about the ethical implications for their work under the banner of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI), which can include a participatory element, but does not extend to the formation of policy.

It is not unreasonable to expect that the public might be consulted on proposals to allow the extraction of shale gas or how to govern quantum level encryption.  The problem is that often the science can be hard to understand and the scientific fact can be hard to establish.

According to IPSOS Mori (Public attitudes on science survey), generic trust in scientists and engineers is on the increase.  However, the proportion of those who claim they have no option but to trust those governing science has also increased suggesting an “increasingly resigned trust”.

To help combat the void of public attitudes towards science and technology, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) founded the ‘Sciencewise’ programme back in 2004.   Its quest was to ‘improve policy making involving science and technology across Government by increasing the effectiveness with which public dialogue is used, and encouraging its wider use where appropriate’.

Since then, 27 dialogue projects have been commissioned on a range of topics such as global food security, bio-engineering and space weather.  It gets better – a number of these projects actually had a demonstrable impact on policy.  For example, the parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on 3 February 2015 on the new regulations to allow the clinical use of mitochondrial replacement recognised the public dialogue, and the wider public consultation, as a vital element in the evidence feeding into the HFEA’s recommendations to Government, and to the Government’s decision to go ahead with the regulations.

At the Consultation Institute we are constantly emphasising the need for pre-consultation as a pre-cursor to both formal consultation and option development. At the very least, dialogues can be used as a form of complimentary evidence towards a formal consultation.  It is apparent to us that Sciencewise was a form of pre-consultation and a much needed mechanism to hear and appraise key arguments as well as combat the notion of ‘resigned trust’.  Moreover, to help decision makers and citizens understand the implications of new technology.

Nevertheless, in a cost cutting measure, government decided to suspend the programme earlier this year.

How, therefore, a government minister might decide on the particulars of highly contentious laws in the future – such as the placement of small nuclear reactors in our neighbourhoods – is at risk of being based on the advice of scientific committees.  Thankfully the programme looks like it will be re-instated again next year, albeit on a smaller scale.

The ongoing need for government to co-fund public dialogue projects is debatable as, thanks largely to the work of Sciencewise, the scientific community is at a tipping point in terms of realising the benefits of early engagement.  For example, EPSRC will launch a public dialogue on Quantum Technologies next year with or without a new incarnation of Sciencewise.

However, we believe that in order to maximise impact there is continued value in using public funds to support a catalyst, concept champion and central resource for maintaining quality dialogues whilst ensuring the output of such dialogues are appropriately fed-forward.  This goes for non-scientific debates too.

tCI will continue to advocate complimentary forms of engagement as a necessary ingredient for formal consultation – particularly when the consultation narrative is shrouded in mystery.

About the Author

An associate of the Institute for over 10 years, worked in local and central government as well as the European Commission. Fraser won the European award for political technologies in 2005 and has is an expert in digital engagement.

Read more about Fraser

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