Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Governance and public engagement in a global perspective

Blog post by Claire Packman, Egenis (on Session 5B - Governance and public engagement in a global perspective)

The session was chaired by Yuko Harayama, the OECD’s Science, Technology and Industry deputy director. She suggested in her opening remarks that there seems to be broad agreement that public engagement is worth doing, that: “The value of science and technology needs to be examined, not just from the academic point of view,”, But how should it be done? As the session unfolded it became clear that different nations have adopted very different approaches.

Professor Steve Yearley, who was respondent in the session, suggested that, while public engagement is ain increasing trend from the European and US perspective, perhaps we should be wary of assuming that this is so across the globe. He hoped that the session might throw some light on this assumption, and also question the universality of the meaning of ‘science and technology engagement’. There are different local considerations, and boundaries are negotiable. 

James Wilsdon of the Royal Society mentioned that in his time at Demos, Demos had identified three phases of public engagement in the UK.
  • Scientists ‘explaining’, aiming at public understanding rather than engagement 
  • ‘A new mood for dialogue’ in which the tone of public engagement was more conversational
  • Upstream engagement – moving the site of debate to an earlier point in scientific development.
Dr Wilsdon went on to compare public engagement in five countries: Denmark, France, Japan, the Netherlands and the UK, before posing three questions:
  • How important is engagement to the development of science? Can democracy and deliberation contribute to competitive advantage?
  • What happened to the public engagement agenda during an economic downturn? Is it crucial to public support for investment, or is it a luxury we can afford to lose?
  • How well do scientists and policymakers cope with ‘uninvited’ engagement?
He was almost certainly the only person at this – or possibly any – conference, to end with a quote from Frank Zappa.

Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner avoided rock icons in her presentation, preferring to concentrate on public engagement with human embryonic stem cell research (hSER) in Asia and in the UK.  In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority set out to consult the public as a basis for robust policymaking in legislating on this contested issue. The process it undertook, however, was strongly criticised as being undertaken in such a way that the public did not really inform the final policy choice.

Dr. Sleeboom-Faulkner examined how the debate on hSER was carried on in East Asia, exploring how debate, consultation and regulation proceeded in South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan.  There were, as might be expected, very different types of bioethics debates in the different countries but notably, who the’ public’ might be can be construed very differently. “We cannot only look through the national frame,” she emphasised.  Scientists are aware of other national regulations and debates, and this is vey important to international collaboration. She concluded that:
  • Public discussion has different meanings and functions
  • Public discussion needs a global context
Steve Yearley suggested that one of the points raised by the session was that it seems that part of the role of the public is as ‘ethical experts’ , asked to resolve the ethical issues that scientific practitioners can’t, or don’t want to, or think they should not, resolve themselves.  He had been interested to discover through the presentations that regulation can be enabling as well as inhibiting. This played into the question posed earlier, whether successful public engagement can be a competitive advantage – it seems that it can. He had also been interested to be reminded by Dr. Sleeboom-Faulkner, that standards may be ‘imported’ from one country to another, in order to be able to continue international collaboration. The standards being imported may be completely disconnected from local ways of thinking.

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