Creating the citizen scientist

July 21, 1995

Public participation in science policy is relatively unknown in the UK. But, as Jon Turney discovers, the Dutch and the Danes have long been pioneers in this area, while Alan Irwin makes the case for continental 'science shops'

Ten years after the importance of bringing science and the public closer together was highlighted by a Royal Society report, most of the initiatives promoted under the banner of public understanding of science still have a promotional flavour. We now have science festivals, science weeks and science prizes. There are special grants from the Office of Science and Technology, and the newly reconstituted research councils have enhancement of public understanding as part of their mission statements. The concern is to recruit more bright schoolchildren to study science at university, to enhance appreciation of science - it is a concern with selling science.

However, alongside the "physics is phun" school of science promotion, there is a more interesting agenda for public understanding. Among the whole range of new schemes sustained by state support, now running at millions of pounds annually, are ideas concerned with what the public thinks about or wants from science. They start from the recognition that getting serious about public understanding of science means confronting the politics of expertise - who gets to decide what on "technical" matters, on whose behalf, and on what authority? And they tend to reverse a crucial causal link. While the official agenda recognises that increasing public understanding may lead to calls for a stronger outside voice (indeed, any voice at all) in scientific and technical decision-making, the alternative view holds that it is precisely the opportunity to voice such an opinion which will enhance public understanding.

This is why the "consensus conference", the first British one of which was held late last year, is a useful model. For one thing such conferences demonstrate clearly that, given such an opportunity, public understanding of science is not a problem. The British example, reviewed earlier this month at a two-day meeting at the Science Museum in London, reinforced the view that all public understanding needs is enough motivation. The recent case which caught the fancy of the British press, of a man who taught himself enough neurobiology from his prison cell to overturn his conviction for causing his child's head injury, showed one way of concentrating someone's mind on science. The consensus conference offers a less Johnsonian extreme.

So what are the main features of this model for public discussion of science and technology? As domestic experience is limited to one case - the 1994 conference backed by the Biology and Biological Resources Research Council - the follow-up meeting also considered the more numerous Danish and Dutch conferences. In both countries, the habit of convening panels of ordinary citizens to discuss controversial technical issues now seems an established part of democratic debate. The agreed essentials seem to include open advertisement for non-experts to be empanelled, persuading the technical experts to answer questions in the terms put by the panel over two preliminary weekends, and then to commit themselves for the full three days of the final session. They then have to be content to let the panel write its own report, free from any outside influence.

The result is a forum where members of the public can meet the experts on something like equal terms, and draw their own conclusions about what matters on the particular issue being debated. The issues covered so far have often been drawn from the biomedical sciences, perhaps more controversial in these times than the physical sciences. The Danish, for example, have run consensus conferences on food irradiation, the human genome project, infertility treatment, and integrated agriculture. But they have also included air pollution, educational technology and information technology in traffic control as topics.

The Danes emphasise the importance of consensus. According to Lars Kluver, acting director of the Danish Board of Technology, "it is uninteresting to register non-agreement, we already have access to that". The point is to see how much overlap there is between people with different basic values and different ethical starting points. The Dutch are less hung-up on consensus, and regard their exercises simply as occasions for social debate. In both countries, as in the UK, the events get a good deal of media coverage, and their findings are taken seriously by politicians and regulators. As John Durant of the Science Museum puts it, "there's so much rhetoric about democracy in cultures like ours, but so little reality, that when something comes up which actually looks like democracy in action, it gets a lot of attention".

It remains to be seen whether there is any further mileage in the idea in the UK. One or two more experiments, at around Pounds 80,000 a time, certainly seem worthwhile. The potential benefit is plainly wider than the public understanding of the specific issues discussed. It includes the message that scientists and other professionals are willing to respond to questions from the public on contentious issues in a forum where the experts have no control over the outcome. And such a debate is one path toward a more nuanced discussion of future scientific and technological prospects, a discussion far too often reduced to asking whether people are "anti-science".

In the late 20th century, being anti-science makes about as much sense as being against the weather. But it is legitimate to be interested in the overall direction of science, as well as its local effects. The terms of the discussion we really need to learn how to have are most intriguingly formulated by the physicist, feminist and historian Evelyn Fox Keller. Picking her way delicately through the philosophical dispute between realists and social constructivists - which has so exercised some scientists concerned with public understanding recently - she points out that there is a question both sides are prone to neglect. We may not have unmediated access to reality, she argues, but science surely "works" in something like the way researchers come to feel that it does. But we still need to ask what it works at.

Keller has in mind a rather profound version of that question, involving both metaphysical and instrumental answers. But there are less ambitious versions which are equally worth asking. Other new ventures may also contribute to opening up some of them. Science shops, like consensus conferences, are well-established elsewhere but still highly experimental in this country. The telephone help service Science Line has recently launched an email service for schools, and will soon be accessible from the Internet. More ambitiously, there is work in hand at the Science Museum developing worldwide web pages designed to encourage a kind of on-line assessment of biotechnology.

Jon Turney is in the department of history, philosophy and communication of science, University College London.

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