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Public Communication of Science and Technology


An evaluation of the Danish consensus conferences

Simon Joss  

This paper considers the role of participatory forms of technology assessment (TA) in public decision-making and public debate on science and technology.

The development of the Danish TA programme over the last 15 years exemplifies the shift away from a purely expert-oriented assessment system focusing on the analysis of consequences of technological innovation, and towards a more open assessment system featuring a variety of social groups involved in public discourse on the shaping of future science and technology. As such, it reflects an increasingly critical view of scientific and technological determinism.

The most prominent vehicle of this new form of TA in the Danish context is the consensus conference (CC). Thirteen have been organised to date on a variety of topics, such as genetic engineering and information technology. A key element of a CC is a citizen panel which hears evidence from experts and assesses, from its perspective, the subject under consideration. The principal aims are to make contributions to parliamentary decision-making and to public debate. Thus, CC reports are presented to Members of Parliament, the media and the general public. CCs are organised by an independent Board of Technology which emerged as the key TA institution in Denmark.

This paper presents the findings of a study of the impact of CCs on the Danish Parliament and Danish public opinion. The study includes:

* in-depth interviews with five Members of Parliament from across the party-political spectrum (October 1994-June 1996);

* a questionnaire-based survey of Members of Parliament (October 1995- March 1996);

* two questionnaire-based random-sample opinion-polls of the Danish population (n=1000 each; August and October 1995).

The paper shows how CCs have influenced individual Members of Parliament, internal party-discussions, parliamentary debates, and the course of overall parliamentary TA. Furthermore, the paper reports on the impact of CCs and the topics discussed on Danish public opinion, with particular focus on a recent CC on gene therapy.

The study provides insights into how Members of-Parliament perceive:

* science and scientists;

* the nature of the interaction between the scientific community, the general public, and decision-makers; and

* the (potential) role of participatory forms of TA as a contribution to policy-and decision-making.

The study emphasises the importance of taking the wider cultural contexts of participatory TA into account.

A number of countries have begun to hold Danish-style CCs (Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway), and others are considering introducing them.

This study will help facilitate the assessment of the potential value of participatory forms of TA in different national contexts.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.