The latest initiative in the furthering of public understanding of science is the first British consensus conference, in which lay people give a verdict on a controversial public issue. It begins next week, amid predictions that the results will be very different from academic scrutiny of such issues.
The subject of the conference is plant biotechnology. Sixteen lay people will quiz experts on all aspects of the subject, from the ethical to the technical. The panel then produces a report which the organisers hope will influence policy makers.
The conference is organised by the Science Museum and sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and modelled on the lay panel idea pioneered in Denmark. Lars Kluver, of the Danish Board of Technology, said that the conferences are an opportunity for more diffuse interests to have a say. "Politicians will always get a lot of input from academic circles -- the direct interests will always be heard," he said. Reports written by non-experts produce less "rationalistic conclusions".
"It is very different with lay people. Their conclusions are much more goal-setting. They are very political. They accept very much what they think are right and wrong in this world. In an expert report there tend to be no feelings, and if you do mention feelings you refer to other people and to investigations."
The academic witnesses are often suspicious, says Mr Kluver: "Usually the very hard-core technicians do not understand these kinds of processes. One expert complained that the panel concluded on things that he wasn't asked about -- on the basis of its own knowledge and not that of the experts."
But Mr Kluver said that the scientists accepted later on that it was useful to have "an arrow of public opinion".
In the United Kingdom, the lay panel has devoted two weekends to hearing evidence from experts on issues surrounding plant biotechnology. The main part of the conference, to which the public is invited, starts on Wednesday.
Imelda Topping of the Science Museum said it had been difficult to find enough experts to match the demands of the panel. But academics such as John Beringer, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment and Dick Flavell, head of the John Innes Institute of plant sciences in Norwich, are giving evidence.