Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Green Alliance


This submission is based on ongoing Green Alliance work examining practical ways forward for policy and regulation on issues of scientific uncertainty, including GM, BSE and chemicals regulation. This work has included looking at need to build public trust in decisions involving scientific uncertainty and ways to engage the public in decision-making through deliberative and inclusionary processes. Green Alliance has been working with representatives from government departments including the Cabinet Office, DETR, DTI, Office of Science and Technology, HM Treasury; industry; environmental NGOs and academics on this area.

  Below is a brief summary of some of our interim recommendations:

    (1)  The public is interested in the world we live in, not just in the short-term sense, but in the direction that society is taking as a result of new technologies. Post-BSE, the public has a sophisticated understanding of issues involving scientific uncertainty and wants to be more involved in the decision-making processes concerning these issues. The Government should open these issues up to broad discussion and consultation as early as possible. It is therefore necessary to have effective early warning systems in place to identify potential opportunities and problems in areas involving scientific uncertainty.

    The Government should consider extending the role of the Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA) to include an ILGRA Futures Group, in order to anticipate issues involving scientific uncertainty well in advance. Currently this group is a voluntary network and the advantages and disadvantages of formalising ILGRA to expand its influence and allow members to allocate more time to the group should be considered. It was notable that the Office of Technology Assessment to the US failed, because it only focused on the problems and not on the opportunities of new technologies and innovations and how to exploit them—means must be found to engage the wider public in decisions about both risks and benefits before full commitment has been made to new technologies.

    (2)  The Government needs to ensure that the right mechanisms are in place for handling issues of scientific uncertainty and involving the public in these decisions. In particular, the process for the framing of scientific questions should be open and iterative. The new Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) for example has the potential to be effective, if it is given the opportunity to be bold and experimental and to genuinely consult widely and act on that consultation process.

    Previous foresight exercises on biotechnology have not sought views from the public and this is a crucial area for the AEBC to remedy. The Government must also be an "intelligent customer" for the advice produced by the Commission.

    In order to build the necessary skill base within Government and Agencies for implementing deliberative and inclusionary processes, training and investment will be required. A point of entry for these processes could be the Civil Service College and the Centre for Management and Policy Studies in the Cabinet Office as part of the Modernising Government agenda. Some form of reward system should also be put in place for civil servants for involving the public and for intelligence-gathering of the values and views of the public.

    (3)  The Government should acknowledge that there may be a wide spectrum of legitimate views on many of today's environmental problems. It should be open about dissent where it exists, as the public will quickly pick up on any false consensus, which will consequently foster distrust. All views should be brought to the table and the Government must continue to broaden the disciplinary mix in institutions and stakeholder panels, including non-experts.

    Transparency is a key component in building the trust of the public in the decision-making process and the Government should be open about scientific uncertainty. It should avoid the inherently erroneous language of safety and phrases such as "no evidence of harm" and acknowledge that the absence of evidence of risk is not the same as evidence of absence of risk.

    (4)  A diversity of tools and techniques for engaging the public is required for different situations. New methodologies are emerging such as visualising futures; storytelling; intuitive questioning and the use of interactive IT and the internet, which are all at an experimental stage. The challenge lies in trying to scale up such techniques, as the cost and time involved may be considerable. It may not always be possible to directly transpose participatory approaches used in other countries such as the Danish consensus conference model, as it is framed in a very different social context, where citizens have a greater tendency to seek consensus. There is much to be learnt on how to engage the public in UK. It will inevitably be a fairly lengthy and costly learning process in order to refine a participatory toolkit to meet the particular needs of the UK. However, whenever the costs of the toolkit are considered, the costs of inaction, in terms of loss of public trust must also be taken into consideration, as seen with BSE and nuclear waste. It might also be helpful to establish some institutional base for ensuring the appropriateness and rigour of participatory tools being applied to different policy areas. This would also assist in maintaining an "institutional memory", so that lessons learnt from past experiences of policy making are not forgotten.

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