Let’s talk! Innovation in public dialogue in Europe

To consult citizens before taking decisions relating to science and technology is getting more and more common in Europe. The UK governmental initiative Sciencewise forms a role model.

The past decade has seen a huge increase in the amount of public dialogue on science and technology taking place across Europe as policy makers and researchers recognise the value of involving citizens in the creation of science policy. A recently published report, by Sciencewise, the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policymaking, provides an international overview of public dialogue on science and technology and highlights some of innovate practices taking place.

A unique model

In the report, Sciencewise compares its own model of engagement with others in Europe, including the Danish Board of Technology, Norway’s Board of Technology, the Netherlands’ Rathenau Instituut, and TA-Swiss, identifying differences, similarities and learning points of interest.

A UK government-funded programme, Sciencewise was set up in 2004, partly in response to the ‘crisis of confidence’ that evolved around the controversial issues of GM (genetically modified) crops and BSE (commonly known as mad cow disease) and a recognition that constructive ways of creating more openness and dialogue with the public on science and technology issues were needed. Sciencewise is particularly unique in Europe, as it directly supports government departments to carry out public dialogues linked to their own policy agendas. This also means that its recommendations always reach the right policymakers.

As a recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper points out, it is Sciencewise’s success, along with the huge number of other actors and initiatives involved in public engagement activity in the UK, that means that the UK is now viewed by many to be at the forefront of public dialogue and innovative engagement.

Innovative practices across Europe

Organisations in other countries reviewed in the report tend to have a broader and sometimes international agenda. However, all organisations use a wide range of engagement methods, including focus groups, citizen panels and consensus conferences (a method pioneered by the Danish Board of Technology, in which citizens are involved in assessing technologies with ethical and societal implications).

A number of case studies are highlighted, such as innovative initiatives involving citizens in the co-production of knowledge and development of solutions. Examples include Denmark’s Mind-Lab, a cross-ministerial innovation unit that works with citizens and businesses to prototype and test new ideas relating to policy areas before they are implemented, a concept, which inspired NESTA’s Innovation Lab in the UK. In Switzerland, the Risk Dialogue Foundation involves the public in solution-orientated discussions about societal risks, ranging from nanotechnology, geothermic energy to network safety and genetic engineering.

Five categories of engagement

As the report points out, it is often the local cultural and political context that shapes the type of engagement undertaken in different countries. Scandinavian countries, for example, have a strong tradition of engagement and established procedures for involving citizens, in contrast to countries such as France, Germany and Japan, where there is a more deferential attitude towards scientific expertise.

Analysing the different practices in different countries, the report categorises activity into five types:

1) Science communication (e.g. science festivals, science museums’ activities)
2) Discussion between researchers and the general public (e.g. science cafes)
3) Involvement of lay people to assess new science and technologies (e.g. online and offline user panels and focus groups)
4) Gauging the opinions of the public and informing policy making
5) Co-production of knowledge and/or development of solutions through collaborations between different stakeholders

A Europe-wide approach

Activity is also not just confined to national level. The European Commission is keen to give citizens a voice in EU policy-making too, as demonstrated in the VOICES project, a year-long consultation to inform EU research policy, which involved 100 focus groups in 27 Member States. “Science with and for Society” is a key concept of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, and public dialogue, along with concepts such as Responsible Research and Innovation, are seen as important parts of this.

As Sciencewise’s report acknowledges, the argument for public dialogue on science and technology seems to have been won. The number of initiatives at national and European level is now only going to grow.

Read Sciencewise’s complete report: Public dialogue in science and technology: an international overview


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