Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


A new mood for dialogue

  5.1  We have argued above that public confidence in science and policy based on science has been eroded in recent years. In consequence, there is a new humility on the part of science in the face of public attitudes, and a new assertiveness on the part of the public. Today's public expects not merely to know what is going on, but to be consulted; science is beginning to see the wisdom of this, and to move "out of the laboratory and into the community" (Firth p 297) to engage in dialogue aimed at mutual understanding. Several of our witnesses agree that a shift along these lines is taking place (e.g. COPUS Q 156, Irwin/Healey Q 64, Sci Mus p 68).

  5.2  In an analogy with healthcare, Peter Healey[44] described this as the "social equivalent of informed consent" (Q 55). The concept of scientists having a metaphorical "licence to practise" has also been expressed; and reference was made at our meeting in Washington with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to a tacit "contract of consent".

  5.3  The new mood for dialogue can be expressed in numerous different activities. It may be "in its infancy" (UCL p 420); but there is a growing body of experience, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. What follows is a review of the following principal options:

  • Consultations at national level
  • Consultations at local level
  • Deliberative polling
  • Standing consultative panels
  • Focus groups
  • Citizens' juries
  • Consensus conferences
  • Stakeholder dialogues
  • Internet dialogues
  • The Government's Foresight programme

  5.4  The techniques surveyed here fall into two kinds:

    (i)  Market research exercises, designed to improve policy-makers' understanding of the attitudes and values of the public by engaging with a more or less representative sample.

    (ii)  Public consultation exercises, designed to engage directly with as many as possible of the public at large.

These two possible purposes are not mutually exclusive. They are however different, and must not be confused.

Consultations at national level

  5.5  The Government's Public Consultation on the Biosciences was described above in Chapter 2. Alan Irwin acted as an adviser to the OST, and gave us his verdict on the process (Q 79). He acknowledged that it was time-consuming and expensive, and that the workshops were open to the charge of being directed by the organisers rather than the lay participants. However in his view the lay participants were engaged by the issues, and developed "rich understandings" as the workshops proceeded. Participants themselves rated the process highly, and were proud to take part.

  5.6  This in itself does not justify the process, since the number of lay participants was small. Indeed, despite its name, we see this exercise as closer to market research than to public consultation. It remains to be seen how the Government will spread the rich understandings of the participants more widely, and what they will do with their own enhanced understanding of the public's attitudes and values in this area.

  5.7  The Wellcome Trust has held a series of national consultations on biomedical topics in recent years, as part of its Medicine in Society programme, including:

Consultations at local level

  5.8  The RCEP drew to our attention a much more local consultation, by Hampshire County Council on household waste management in 1993-95. This followed the failure of an application for a new energy-from-waste incinerator in Portsmouth. The incinerator had been identified as the "best practical environmental option", and conventional consultation had taken place; but local pressure groups and Portsmouth City Council together defeated the plan. The RCEP commented, "Neither the developer nor the County Council had made a full effort to listen to people's views and to take them on board during the development of the proposal" (SES F.5).

  5.9  The County Council did not repeat this mistake. In 1993 they launched an elaborate two-year public consultation. It consisted of:

  5.10  The advisory fora reached consensus on a need for an integrated strategy for waste management, to include energy-from-waste incineration. In 1995 the Council produced a strategy, which was the subject of further consultation before being finalised in 1996. The whole exercise clearly went beyond market research, and involved genuine public consultation.

  5.11  The RCEP commented, "The county council gained an understanding that public responses to proposals for waste disposal facilities which had previously been categorised as 'NIMBY' should not be dismissed as irrational, subjective and based on self-interest, but masked issues that had to be addressed about inequities in risk sharing and lack of trust in decision-takers" (SES 7.26). This is a clear example, on a local level, of the problem noted above in Chapter 3 of identifying accurately the issues of concern to the public. In oral evidence, Professor Roland Clift of the RCEP commented that the consultation "got into the public debatethe idea that doing nothing was not an option. That immediately focuses the deliberative process on finding an outcome rather than merely accepting or rejecting a solution which is imposed by somebody else" (Q 654). He added that the Council recognised with hindsight that an elaborate consultation leading to an outcome which commands assent is cheaper than a non-consultative approach whose conclusion cannot be implemented (Q 663).

Deliberative polling

  5.12  In a deliberative poll, a large representative group of perhaps several hundred people conducts a debate on an issue. The group is polled on the issue before and after the debate. A deliberative poll is a fairly crude, one-off market research exercise. According to the RCEP (SES 7.46), running a deliberative poll might typically cost around £22,000.

Standing consultative panels

  5.13  The United Kingdom is the first country in the world to set up a standing consultative panel at national level. The People's Panel consists of 5,000 members of the public, selected at random from across the United Kingdom, available as a market research instrument for quantitative and qualitative research and consultation. It was set up in 1998 by MORI and Birmingham University for the Cabinet Office. Its primary purpose is to track levels of satisfaction with public services, but it is also available for other purposes. As noted above, it was used in the Public Consultation on the Biosciences.

  5.14  It is possible to maintain a panel with a more limited remit. The Wellcome Trust currently has a consultative panel on gene therapy.

Focus groups

  5.15  A focus group is a qualitative tool (see above, Chapter 2) used widely in commercial market research and increasingly in academic sociological research. Typically, a group of around 10 people, broadly representative of the population being studied, is invited to discuss the issue of concern, usually guided by a trained facilitator working to a designed discussion protocol. This focused discussion typically lasts up to two hours. The group is not required to reach any conclusions, but the contents of discussion are studied for what they may reveal about understandings, attitudes and values with respect to the issue as understood by policy experts.

  5.16  As a polling method, focus groups are of limited value. Instead, their purpose is to help to clarify how the public perceive an issue, and what meanings they attach to the language in which it is framed. They may also help to identify the factors (which large-scale surveys rarely do) that shape attitudes and responses, including trust or mistrust. Focus groups also help in the design and interpretation of "quantitative" public opinion surveys.

Citizens' juries

  5.17  A citizens' jury involves a small group of lay participants (maybe 12-20) receiving, questioning, discussing and evaluating presentations by experts on a particular issue, usually over one or two days. At the end, the group is invited to make recommendations. This process has been widely used for market research by local authorities, government agencies, policy researchers and consultants, on issues not confined to science. For instance, the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care ran a citizens' jury on genetic testing for common disorders in 1997 (SES p 109); and the ESRC ran one on the EU Single Market, as an experiment in dissemination of social science research, in the same year.

  5.18  A citizens' jury is a less ambitious, and cheaper, exercise than a consensus conference. It is however a demanding process, and something more than a focus group. The RCEP reckon that one might cost £15-£25,000 (SES 7.46).

Consensus conferences

  5.19  For a consensus conference, a balanced sample of around 16 lay volunteers is selected. The group meets first in private, to discuss the issue and to decide what are the key questions which it raises. There is then a public phase, lasting perhaps three days, during which the group hears and interrogates expert witnesses, and draws up a report. According to the RCEP (SES Box 7A), this is

  "the only form of public consultation designed specifically to deal with technological and scientific issues".

  5.20  A consensus conference does not purport to be statistically representative of the public at large. The main differences between a consensus conference and a citizens' jury or focus group are the opportunity for the participants to become more familiar with the technicalities of the subject; the greater degree of initiative allowed to the panel; the admission of the press and the public; and the cost. The RCEP puts this at £85,000 (SES 7.46); the most recent consensus conference in this country (see below) cost around £100,000.

  5.21  The first consensus conference of this type was held in Denmark, on the subject of irradiating food. It was organised by the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), which performs for the Danish Parliament a role somewhat analogous to that of POST. (For further details, see Appendix 4.) According to the RCEP (SES 7.31), this conference enabled the Danish Parliament to judge correctly that the public would not accept irradiation of food, whereas in this country the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes judged incorrectly that it would. Denmark has also held consensus conferences on gene technology in industry and agriculture (as a result of which the government withheld funding from animal gene technology research), mapping the human genome, and IT in transport.

  5.22  The DBT was instrumental in developing consensus conference techniques. The aim was to fulfil both the possible purposes noted above, both to inform policy and to engage the public: hence, in particular, the admission of the public and the press.

  5.23  It was stressed during our visit to Denmark that consensus conferences were only one of a number of different methods which the DBT used. The DBT's responsibilities are to "further the technology debate, assess technological impacts and options, and advise the Danish Parliament and Government". The DBT emphasised that different methods were suitable for different issues and different stages of technological debates. In some cases it was best to consult the public; in others, meetings involving scientific experts were more appropriate. Another important consideration was that the results of the DBT's work, including consensus conferences, were made available for the Danish Parliament to use as it saw fit. The DBT does not act as an arbiter, and its work with the public was not seen as "direct democracy", in the sense of abdicating responsibility for decisions to some kind of popular vote.

  5.24  The first consensus conference in the United Kingdom was held in 1994, on the subject of plant biotechnology, i.e. GM crops. It was organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Science Museum. The event itself was reckoned to have gone well, and according to the RCEP "it generated considerable interest and influenced some government departments and MPs" (SES p 108); but it had no visible impact on policy. It has been suggested that, if its conclusions had received more attention, the issue could have been handled in a way more acceptable to the public and the current furore over GM crops might have been mitigated (Briggs Q 166, NERC p 453, Glaxo p 310), though this is, of course, a matter of speculation with the benefit of hindsight.

  5.25  The second such conference in the United Kingdom was held in 1999, on the subject of the management of nuclear waste. It was organised by the Centre for Economic and Environmental Development (UK CEED). Our own report on nuclear waste had recently been published, and some of us attended part of the proceedings. Its impact on policy will be apparent when the Government publish the green paper on management of nuclear waste which they promised in their response to our report.

Stakeholder dialogues

  5.26  A "stakeholder dialogue" is a consultation restricted to those who have, or who express, an interest in the subject matter. It is therefore more than market research, but less than a consultation of the whole public, which would have to include those who, at least to start with, were not interested.

  5.27  In the course of our recent inquiry into Management of Nuclear Waste, Mr Eric Faulds, the Decommissioning Manager for Shell UK Exploration and Production, described to us the stakeholder dialogue which his company undertook after campaigners forced them to reconsider their plans for disposal of the Brent Spar offshore installation in 1995[45]. Shell engaged the Environment Council, an independent charity, to design and run a consultation process. From a list of 500 interested parties, the Council selected balanced groups to attend meetings held in London, Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Hamburg. At an initial meeting in each place, the company posed the question, "What criteria would you use to select a shortlist of options to consider?" In the light of the answers, the company drew up a shortlist, and invited contractors to make proposals, which were made public. At further meetings, the company invited stakeholders to place values on the various environmental and safety factors involved. The company then applied those values in evaluating the contractors' proposals.

  5.28  At all these meetings, the Environment Council provided chairmen; the company's role was to provide necessary information, and then to sit back and listen. There was no requirement to reach consensus; responsibility for making decisions remained with the company and the Government.

  5.29  It was dialogue of this kind which Professor Conway urged the directors of Monsanto to engage in. He called for "a global public dialogue—which will involve everyone on an equal footing—the seed companies, consumer groups, environmental groups, independent scientists and representatives of governments". He proposed the following elements:

  • "A list of all the possible areas of risk and of benefit and an attempt to prioritise them
  • The creation of a range of fora for discussion, including use of the Internet
  • A truly impartial public education effort based on the global list of risks and benefits
  • Concessions on the part of Monsanto
  • Full disclosure and transparency
  • Respecting the process"

Internet dialogues

  5.30  The Internet is a tool which can be used to enable consultation, in any of the modes described above, to escape from the confines of place. It also permits a form of consultation which may be distinguished from other modes, and which may be termed an "Internet dialogue" or "Internet forum". An Internet dialogue may be closed to a selected list of participants; or it may be open to anyone with Internet access. As access increases, Internet dialogues look set to become an increasingly powerful tool for direct public consultation.

  5.31  Internet dialogues are cheap and easy to run for anyone with the necessary technology, and there are no doubt more in progress than anyone knows. POST has organised two in the last year in collaboration with the Hansard Society: one on the Data Protection Act; the second on the experiences of women in higher education (QQ 842-910). The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration, which is currently inquiring into innovations in citizen participation in government, has commissioned the Hansard Society to conduct an Internet dialogue on this subject.

  5.32  In spring 1998 Professor Steve Fuller of Durham University organised a Global Cyberconference on Public Understanding of Science, as part of the ESRC Public Understanding of Science Programme. On the basis of this experience, Alan Irwin and Peter Healey observe (p 31) that the Internet is a popular medium; it enables a lot of responses to be collected quickly, and analysed using search engines; and it combines the advantages of rapid exchange of ideas (brainstorming) with a complete record. On the other hand, participation is self-selecting and unrepresentative; and the anonymity of the Internet can "encourage impulsive rather than considered responses". It may also be observed that this anonymity makes it difficult to investigate the provenance of information, and therefore difficult to weigh it; this militates against public confidence.

  5.33  The RCEP comments (SES 7.30) that the quality of information and debate on the Internet is often low, and participants may have little confidence that views expressed this way make a difference. These problems may be diminished if the "moderator" of the dialogue has a sufficiently high profile.

  5.34  Our attention has been drawn to research by Professor Andrew Graham, of Oxford University[46], into the possibilities presented by the advent of digital TV. It is believed in some quarters that digital TV linked to the Internet will make possible undreamed-of levels of participatory democracy. Professor Graham sees problems down this road. First, TV is susceptible to undue concentration of ownership; and new scope for monopoly power will arise from the need for an "electronic programme guide" as the gateway to digital channels and services. Second, "Touch-sensitive screens cannot be part of true participationAll the true power lies with those who design the menus, not with those who touch the screens". Professor Graham sees the answer to the first of these problems in regulation in the public interest, and to the second in the preservation of a public service element in broadcasting and the cultivation of "trusted third parties".

  5.35  The use of the Internet in the ways discussed here is very new, and will need to be evaluated when more experience has been gained. We would merely observe that, for electronic dialogue to be orderly and to produce useful results, there needs to be a robust moderator and a clear set of rules for participants.


  5.36  A consultation of a different kind is the Government's Foresight programme. This was inaugurated by Realising our Potential in 1993, and known originally as Technology Foresight. The purpose of Foresight is to look at the future in a systematic way and develop a vision for different sectors of society and the economy. In April 1999 a programme was launched that would look at three themes which were:

and ten different sectors of the economy. Each panel would consider education, skills and training, plus sustainable development. Each panel is supported by task forces which look in more detail at specific areas. In addition associate programmes undertaken by professional institutions and research and technology organisations work within the framework of the national programme to investigate the future of a particular topic. All this work will be fed into a pool of knowledge from which individuals and companies can draw a vision of the future relating to their work or business.

  5.37  The purpose of the exercise is to provide people with a coherent and unified view as to what the future will look like; to inform people about change; to prepare them for it; and to help them to cope with it. It is an ambitious programme and of course it is too early to say how effective it will be. Although the process of Foresight is fairly open, in practice those consulted represent expert communities rather than the public at large.

Managing Director of the Science Policy Support Group and co-ordinator of the ESRC Public Understanding of Science Programme. Back

45   HL Paper 26 1998-99, Q 1305. Back

46   Policies for Participation, in Communication, Citizenship, and Social Policy, ed. Calabrese and Burgelman, Rowman & Littlefield (USA) 1997. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 2000