Out of the Loop – why public dialogue finds it hard to influence policy.

This article first appeared in Research Fortnight, February 2015.

Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of Mad Cow Disease, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology looked into the relationship between science and the public. Their report, ‘Science and Society’, published in 2000, identified a ‘crisis in trust’ between the public and science that, if ignored, could lead to technology being ignored or abused. In response, the report called for a ‘new mood for dialogue’, which would ‘help the decision-maker to listen to public values and concerns; and give the public some assurance that their views are taken into account, increasing the chance that decisions will find acceptance.’

Since then the old ‘deficit model’ style of public understanding of science, which focused upon explaining science to the public in order to build support, has largely been replaced in most funding structures by a public engagement/public dialogue approach. In this approach, the public are invited to debate and discuss science with various experts and organisations, through activities ranging from formal debates and Q&A sessions, to consensus conferences and citizens juries. Through programmes like ScienceWise, numerous public dialogue activities have taken place on new and emerging areas of science and technology – from nanotechnology and synthetic biology, to human-animal hybrid embryos and stem cells.

So what have we learned from talking to the public about science and technology and has it made a difference? For the past few years this is one of the questions I have been trying to answer. I have been looking at how the public talk about science and technologies in reports of public dialogue events and comparing this to how ‘experts’ have been discussing the same issues in the various reports from the learned societies, and how policymakers settle the matters in their final policy reports. While there are some echoes of the public’s voice in the policy reports, particularly around the need to anticipate and act upon unforeseen consequences, it is clear that the policy reports are more closely aligned with they way in which scientific ‘experts’ see science and innovation. Interviews with government officials, advisers and politicians have reinforced this conclusion – the views of expert bodies, rather than the outputs of public dialogue, appear to be the key sources of advice for policymaker.

Why is this the case and should we be concerned? One possible explanation lies in the visions of science that emerge from the public dialogues. For the public, science is seen as a source of progress – particularly in biosciences’ ability to produce medical cures. But this sense of progress is tempered with a clear understanding that the benefits that science and innovation can offer come hand in hand with risks, downsides, social and ethical issues and unforeseen consequences. While science represents progress, it has also caused problems and these problems are inherent in the science itself. The experts, in contrast, talk about science as a much greater force for progress bringing about changes beyond medical cures, and offering the power to address the really big problems ahead – particularly around the economy and the environment. Social and ethical issues are seen as being either the result of poor public perceptions or insufficient scientific knowledge. Downsides can be dealt with by more information or more research. For a science policymaker operating under the constant eye of the Treasury, and where science is seen as an important driver of economic growth and competitiveness, it is possible to see how this ‘expert’ vision of science is much more helpful as it offers a way to develop innovation while managing away any associated problems.

Interviews with policymakers tell a more complex story though. All of those I spoke to understood the nuanced nature of the role and challenges of science within our society – and how inter-related they were. They were also clear that the views of wider society needed to feed into the decision-making in a meaningful way. They did however have very different understandings of how this would happen. Firstly, they were keen to take advice from ‘experts’ – whether that was legal advice on ethical matters, hearing the implications of a particular policy from service users or particular faith groups. The outputs of public dialogue, with its focus on deliberately lay views, appear to fall outside this category of ‘expert advice’. Secondly, policymakers rely heavily on their networks for advice and support – and public dialogue activities also appear to be outside these networks. As a result, when public input is needed, other sources of advice are turned to – networks of stakeholders and, for politicians, feedback at advice surgeries and in their post-bags.

So where does that leave those championing public participation in science? Firstly, I would argue that the dialogues to date have helped us develop a more detailed understanding of how the public conceptualise and come to know new technologies. This understanding could and should help to make public policy – and science and technologies – more in-line with wider societal concerns. Secondly, while politicians appear to access alternative sources of public input, officials, arms-length bodies and research scientists don’t have that same regular and direct access to outside voices. Indeed officials made up the group that mentioned reports from ScienceWise projects most often, and they had clearly been affected by them. Public dialogue activities in the UK could perhaps have the most value in supporting decision-making at this level and in building themselves into the policy networks that exist. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, airing inconvenient truths is in itself valuable, regardless of whether they are acted upon by those with power. As science and technology continues to change almost every aspect of our lives, continuing to question and challenge the way in which we come to terms with these changes has to be a vital role in a healthy democracy.

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