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Hold the front page: The public’s not stupid

Hold the front page: The public’s not stupid

By Sue Hordijenko, Director of Programmes at the British Science Association and Louise Ogden, Web Editor at the British Science Association

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We have just evaluated the first ten months of Sciencewise-ERC – the expert resource centre that helps policy makers to understand and use public dialogue to inspire, inform and improve policy decisions around science and technology.

Sciencewise helps to set up and run sessions with members of the public, known as public dialogues, to discuss with them everything from their views on a particular area of scientific research, to their thoughts on a new or upcoming piece of policy, or to determine how informed they are on a topic.

Policy won’t work without the public

But public dialogues aren’t just useful in discovering the public’s view on something, often the participants will ask the questions that policymakers had never considered. For example, the public participants for a dialogue on synthetic biology raised five questions:

  • what is the purpose of the research,
  • why do they want to do it,
  • what are they going to gain from it,
  • what else is it going to do,
  • and, how did they know they were right?

This focus on the motivations for the research, and the five specific questions, then fed directly into the development of the idea of 'responsible innovation' by BBSRC Bioscience for Society Panel and the EPSRC Societal Issues Panel before it was closed.

Policy that is proposed and/or implemented without public support can often create backlash that may make it impossible to implement the policy direction, or make it very expensive to do so.

In the evaluation of recent dialogues, several of the policymakers involved remarked that by running a public dialogue they were able to avoid a 'GM situation', i.e. creating a policy that wasn’t going to get the technology banned, by proposing a more proactive and cautious approach to regulation.

Benefits on both sides

Public dialogue doesn’t just improve the resulting policy, it also has the effect of changing the opinions of those involved. Policymakers and other stakeholders spoke quite openly in the recent evaluation of the Sciencewise dialogues, many of them admitting that they hadn’t fully appreciated the benefits of running a dialogue until they themselves were involved in one. Not only that, but by being involved they were also much more likely to run a dialogue in the future as well.

That being said, there was also a clear recognition that a dialogue was not appropriate all of the time, but that when it was, it had a powerful role to play – especially in democratising scientific research and development in the UK.

Equally, the evaluation has thrown up some interesting benefits for the public participants as well. Mainly they talked about the increased sense of empowerment they feel after taking part in a dialogue, which comes from their potential to influence. This also then spurs on their willingness to participate in the future, and to continue to contribute on complex issues.

The transformative nature of public dialogue on the public participants is therefore fundamentally affected by the use and influence of the results. Taking part helps to lift the veil on policymaking – putting people at the heart of what is going on – and allows them to do their “duty” as citizens in a democratic process – beyond simply as service users or consumers.

But only if the participants can see the fruits of their labour. If the results of a dialogue aren’t valued by the policymakers and used to influence the final product, the public dialogue process becomes obsolete.

The pitfalls

However, getting policymakers to be involved in and willing to run public dialogues is still a big problem. Policymakers involved in recent dialogues have identified the main barriers to doing more of them as:

  • cost
  • the small numbers involved / representation
  • lack of time in the policy process and for staff to do it
  • fear (of the unknown and potential backlash)
  • lack of skills (including in using dialogue results)
  • and, the case not having been fully made with key senior people.

We also conducted a survey with the Government Science & Engineering (GSE) network to discover their views on public dialogues and what role they think they play in policymaking decisions. Unsurprisingly, the survey responses also gave cost and lack of time as a reason for not running public dialogues. But predominantly it was a feeling that public participants were either unwilling or unable to engage meaningfully – 68% of the survey respondents reported this.

Not only that, but respondents also said that they largely either knew nothing (33%) or had just a little background knowledge of public dialogue practice in government (48%); a total of 81% with little or no knowledge.

The GSE network is an important audience for the Sciencewise programme so efforts are now being made to address this issue with them to improve future dialogues.

Not only do we want networks like the GSE to be aware of initiatives, like Sciencewise, we also want them to acknowledge the importance of dialogues and what can be gained from running them. After all, the public aren’t stupid, and the more they are included in the policymaking process, the better that policy can be.

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