A bridge over muddled waters

November 11, 1994

A new way of reducing the gap between science and the public may have been aired for the first time in London last week. The UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology (as reported in The THES October 28) used a Danish method which calls on non-experts as the focus of a searching examination of a key emerging technology.

Sixteen lay people of different ages and backgrounds and from all parts of the country attended the conference, organised by the Science Museum and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. They worked intensively over two weekends to the point where they could formulate seven key questions for discussion with panels of experts.

They then debated the questions over three days in the presence of an audience of the general public and the media. Experts including Dick Flavell of BBSRC, John Beringer of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (which controls the release of genetically altered organisms), Ed Dart of Zeneca Seeds and Sue Mayer of Greenpeace assisted in debates on political, environmental, moral and intellectual property aspects of developments in plant biotechnology. After the discussion the panel retired to produce an eight-page summary of its conclusions without outside intervention.

Tom Blundell, chief executive of BBSRC, congratulated the panel on its findings and said that they would be taken into account in BBSRC funding discussions.

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, said that Parliament might learn something from the non-adversarial methods used.

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