Using all our heads

October 14, 2005

Brain science is benefiting from the people power of EU citizens'

panels, enthuses Sharron Dickson

When a letter arrived from the Science Museum's Dana Centre asking me if I was interested in becoming part of the Meeting of Minds European Citizens'

Deliberation, a nine-nation public panel debating the societal and ethical implications of brain science, I was delighted. My husband has epilepsy and we have often bewailed the lack of information available on new treatments.

I replied immediately and shortly thereafter was accepted on to the panel.

The selection process for the British panel of the Meeting of Minds - the biggest-ever international public consultation in the field - was purely statistical. The panel had to represent all ages, social groups, gender and occupations. I was chosen because I live in Shetland, am female and happen to be a student. Therefore, I could represent both the Scottish interest and the student interest in the subject.

I am an honours-year undergraduate in cultural studies at the UHI Millennium Institute and I specialise in archaeology. My specialist subject involves lots of questioning and debate, enabling me to bring those skills to the group.

The first UK Meeting of Minds was held in London at the Dana Centre, the Science Museum's annexe for discussion of contemporary science, in early May. Unfortunately, this also happened to be exam time for me. However, participating in the meeting involved only a weekend away from home, and I felt strongly about taking part in such an innovative project.

The journey was long and wasn't helped by the fact that my luggage went missing en route. When I arrived in London to be greeted by beautifully warm weather, Ihad no choice but to continue wearing my huge, very warm Shetland jumper. It wasn't a comfortable start for me, but once we were all assembled and introduced, the real work began.

I was amazed at the range and complexity of the issues involved and the quality of debate. The discussion centred on Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, deep-brain stimulation, brain "fingerprinting" and the development of children's brains and the impact of outside influences. It didn't matter that the participants had no formal education in these areas, as we were not discussing the illnesses but the impact they have on people. As it turned out, everybody had been personally affected by brain-science issues, be it through an elderly relative with Alzheimer's or a child with dyslexia or ADHD.

It struck me that this could well be the case for most people in the British Isles, making the project doubly important. The debate was lively and sometimes heated, but always productive. I came home wanting to know more, and once my exams were finished - and passed - I wanted to research these issues further.

Our next endeavour was a June meeting in Brussels, which amazed me even more. We were concerned that the issues we discussed wouldn't apply to the rest of Europe. We needn't have worried: each country's representatives said the same things.

Our panels were integrated, and my group included French, Dutch and German participants. Although this threatened to result in an impossible debating forum, the interpreters were superb and quickly we were having discussions as if there were no language barrier at all. Once again, it seemed that everyone present had personal experience of the issues being discussed.

The third meeting, held in York, focused on our questions and the people we wanted to put them to. Again, the discussions were intense, but the amount of information processed in three days was staggering. By the end of the weekend, we had a list of questions and contacts and were raring to go in October - essay time!

This experience has been exceptional. The way in which a diverse group of citizens has been able to tackle complex and sensitive issues says much in favour of this form of inquiry. The people of Europe need to have a say in issues that touch us all; it should not be left to scientists and politicians to examine the consequences of possible legislation.

At the end of the project, the citizens' panels will present policy recommendations to the European Parliament on the issues we have been discussing. It is hoped that these recommendations will be taken on board and acted upon. I also hope that this form of inquiry will be continued, as sensitive issues are too often left to the powers that be when they should be led by the people who know how it feels to be affected.

Sharron Dickson is a cultural studies student, UHI Millennium Institute.

The UK citizens' panel on brain science will meet with experts and the public to debate the impact of developments in neuroscience on October 15 and 16 at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London. To book your free tickets, e-mail tickets@danacentre.org or ring 020 7942 4040.

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