April 3, 2013, by Alison Mohr

Which Publics? When? – Part II

by Alison Mohr, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University of Nottingham with Beverley Gibbs and Sujatha Raman

This post was originally written for the Sciencewise-ERC blog: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/blog/?p=915

Part 2: When should dialogue take place?

In this second blog post we look at when to carry out public dialogue. That public dialogue should take place ‘upstream’ in the innovation process has gained significant support in recent years on the premise that this maximises the potential impact that public input can have by shaping the future direction of innovation before technological and policy commitments become locked-in. However, some argue that early intervention can slow down innovation or create an impasse, while others contend that the socio-economic network and material nature of a technology needs to become visible if dialogues are not to be overly conceptual and abstract.

Rob Flynn, Paul Bellaby and Miriam Ricci have explored the constraints on upstream engagement in the case of hydrogen technologies where they note ‘it is not simply the difficulty of communicating information about the basic science, or conveying differences in scientific opinion, or presenting expert risk assessments of safety to an ‘uninformed’ public which is at issue. Rather, it is about providing citizens with a meaningful and realistic appreciation of the environmental and personal benefits, costs and risks which might result from a transition to a hydrogen economy. This necessarily entails providing a description of alternative scenarios embodying choices and consequences’.

This ‘whole systems’ perspective is contingent upon the ways in which the topic is framed by the organisers, which in turn has implications for the nature of dialogue, as we discuss below. As you can see the question of when to run a dialogue is much more complex than the simplistic language of ‘upstream engagement’ leads us to believe.

What are the implications for design, practice and policy?

The breadth of framing of the topic under discussion may limit the range of discussion to technical questions, while broader social and political questions about interactions with other technologies and the type of future envisioned may be deemed off limits. What is on and off the table matters greatly for the results. Andy Stirling maintains that public dialogue’s democratic promise hinges on its capacity to allow divergent perspectives to emerge under any given condition whereby even the most inclusive dialogue processes cannot definitively reconcile underlying contrasting interests. Such diverging interests have implications not only for public policy making, but also for what counts as ‘appropriate’ dialogic practice. Here, Stirling alludes to the relationship between capturing divergent perspectives and perceptions of democratic legitimacy. But as we noted in our earlier post, a seemingly legitimate process inclusive of different voices may not necessarily lead to the ‘best’ decision, and herein lies a key challenge for policy makers in terms of deciding which publics to involve and when.

Exploring these interrelated challenges will help to develop practical advice to assist policy makers to understand the relationship between the context of a public dialogue, the type of publics it should engage and when, and the rationale of dialogue as a democratic experiment (rather than as social or market research) open to the unexpected. This advice will take the form of a thought leadership paper for a policy audience that will be published by Sciencewise in April 2013.

Policy makers should consider the following factors when determining when dialogue should take place:

•    How are policy making and innovation ‘cycles’ fitting together? What stage are we at? While ‘upstream’ dialogue may maximise the potential impact that public input can have by shaping the future direction of innovation before technological and policy commitments become locked in, the appropriateness of timing is dependent upon the policy objectives for dialogue.

•    What is the dialogue contributing to this process at this time? Dialogue that aims to identify the public’s views of a specific technology may be more appropriate ‘midstream’ once social attention has been drawn to it to enable understanding of the basic science and differences in scientific opinion. Alternatively, if the objective is to imagine a transition to a particular technological future, ‘upstream’ dialogue may be more appropriate to allow consideration of the ‘whole system’ in which the technology will operate, including an appreciation of potential challenges, opportunities, consequences and alternative choices.

•    Is the policy question more suited to a dialogue more akin to a one-off event or an ongoing process? Ongoing dialogue over the longer-term, whereby participants contribute to mapping the range of options for a topic, may be beneficial in terms of enabling mutual learning and the promise of influence on decision making.

•    What contribution to the policy question is the public expected to make? How does this affect how the public will be constituted? As mentioned in Part 1, different points in the policy making cycle call for different publics to be used in different ways. Certain publics may be more suited to helping formulate a policy problem, while others may be more suited to capturing evidence of particular socio-technical practices.

(Part 1 can be found here: https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/03/22/which-publics-when/)

(Image credit: victoriapeckham)

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