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01/09/2014

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Public engagement in Denmark

Richard Wilson is one of many foreigners enthused by Denmark’s track record in public engagement. But a closer look leaves Maja Horst and Alan Irwin less impressed.

Let’s follow the Danes!

Richard Wilson has been inspired

 We are at a cross roads in the Great British science and society journey. After a decade of unprecedented investment and experimentation, we must focus on which approach best suits Britain’s unique science and society culture. Fewer funds will be available in future, but science-driven controversy will not abate. We need to decide how we can deliver the ‘More mature relationship between science and society’ which John Denham called for in 2008.

Richard Wilson has been inspired

 We are at a cross roads in the Great British science and society journey. After a decade of unprecedented investment and experimentation, we must focus on which approach best suits Britain’s unique science and society culture. Fewer funds will be available in future, but science-driven controversy will not abate. We need to decide how we can deliver the ‘More mature relationship between science and society’ which John Denham called for in 2008.

 As it stands, Britain has emerged with a unique, vibrant and increasingly mature science engagement sector. We have the Beacons Programme supporting academic institutions to engage better. We have ScienceWise for national government. Most of the research councils are reaching out to the public and even the Royal Society has recruited serious engagement advocates to senior positions.

 So how come it doesn’t feel as though much has changed? Science has not become See-Through as Demos proposed it might. Leaving to one side the resident elephant in our room – opening up private sector R&D – our biggest failure has been our inability to create a professional and credible science and society sector. And the first step is to set up the institutions which support the creation of respected science and society professionals.

 The Danish experience

I have spent time this year in Copenhagen, working with the Danish Board of Technology (DBT), the celebrated Scandinavian interface between science and technology development and its parliament and public. It’s a bit like the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology with a multi-million kronor budget (although the DBT is part commercial). It boasts a 20-year history of leading-edge public engagement innovation. Its boss, Lars Klüwer, marks a striking and stylish figure in his trade-mark black suit, boots, shirt, hair and no tie.

Klüwer says that the key is to create permanent institutions which produce experts in both science governance, public engagement and practical politics: ‘It’s no good just knowing about policy or engagement; you must have experience in both and the ability to combine them.’ He says in Denmark before the DBT they either had civil servants or academics doing the work, neither of whom had the practical skills necessary.

The other reason Klüwer recommends an institutional solution is to provide a focus for national attention with an explicit networking function. when Involve was set up four years ago we wanted to network the participation sector, but without centralised resources for the task it’s hard to deliver. According to Klüwer, this networking function, underpinned by central government funds, has been central to the DBT’s success.

British Board of Technology

Where does that leave us in Britain, with our plethora of government programmes but no institutional focus? We need our own British Board of Technology (BBT), or something like it, staffed by full-time professionals, with explicit government links.

The staff must have a deep understanding of science policy and public engagement, as well as the key academic discourses – social science and science policy – which underpin this work. We have incredible academics working in these fields in the UK, but too often the practitioners are completely isolated from their debates. The important academic thinking rarely shapes practice.

It is also essential that this body must not outsource all its work to others, but have the in-house capacity to do it itself. This is not just much better value; it creates a training ground for future science and society professionals and an institutional memory for best practice.

When I left university, with a science policy masters and an enthusiasm for engagement, there was no obvious route for my enthusiasm. We must create this professional path for future generations.

A cautionary tale from Denmark

Maja Horst and Alan Irwin assess the state of public engagement

In international discussions of public engagement, one country has been especially prominent. ‘Danish style’ engagement exercises – especially consensus conferences – have been an inspiration world-wide. One US website currently lists 20 countries as having engaged in ‘Danish-style, citizen-based deliberative’ consensus conferences on science and technology issues.

Maja Horst and Alan Irwin assess the state of public engagement

In international discussions of public engagement, one country has been especially prominent. ‘Danish style’ engagement exercises – especially consensus conferences – have been an inspiration world-wide. One US website currently lists 20 countries as having engaged in ‘Danish-style, citizen-based deliberative’ consensus conferences on science and technology issues.

Living and working in Denmark, we take pride in this rich national heritage. However, we cannot avoid the fact that public engagement Danish-style can look a lot less encouraging when viewed close up. Put more bluntly, the international acclaim for the Danish engagement with science and technology is finding voice at just the time when such activities risk being marginalised in their supposed home.

‘Arbiter of taste’

A quick trip back in time will illustrate our point. In January 2002 a group of social scientists from eight European countries met in Copenhagen for the start of an EU-funded project on Science, Technology and Governance in Europe – or STAGE as it was known. One of the key speakers was the CEO of the Danish Board of Technology, Lars Klüwer. The Danish Board is respected internationally for its championing of consensus conferences. Who better to inspire the meeting?

To the great surprise of his audience, Lars Klüwer abruptly got up and announced that he had to leave the meeting before speaking, since the government had just announced that the Board was on a hit list of bodies for closure. This list was the result of the now (in)famous New Year’s speech by the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Rasmussen, in charge of the recently elected right-wing government, had called for a ‘showdown with the arbiters of taste’ and said the new government intended to close a number of expert organisations: ‘Many of them have evolved into state-authorised arbiters of taste, who decide what is good and right in different areas. There are tendencies towards a tyranny of experts, which threatens to oppress the free folkelig [popular, belonging to the ordinary people] debate.’

No consensus conferences

The irony here of course is that a body widely seen as opening up expert judgements to democratic scrutiny now found itself portrayed as elitist and out of touch with folkelig discussion. Meanwhile, the shock and outrage of STAGE participants found only a thin echo within Danish discussions about the Board’s future.

Although the Board of Technology survives, its funding has been cut and it is increasingly dependent on funds from private organisations. The last consensus conference held in Denmark was back in 2005 as part of an externally-funded European project. There are now no consensus conferences planned and the Board makes it no secret that it is struggling to make ends meet. When the Danish government initiated a report on the ‘public understanding of science’ in 2003, the Board of Technology was not in the advisory group, nor did its activities feature prominently in the final report. Dialogue is still on the agenda, but Denmark may be in danger of forgetting its own heritage.

Beware political changes

So what lessons does the Danish experience suggest for public engagement elsewhere? Although we might imagine public engagement to be deeply-rooted, it can prove very vulnerable when shifts in the national political climate occur. Meanwhile, support from influential groups can be hard to find when times get tough.

A more positive story can also be told. Faced with government indifference, the Board has been working hard to make wider links and to generate new forms of dialogue and mediation around science and technology. Public engagement cannot depend solely on government support or approval but must build wider, more resilient networks and alliances. In this, the Board is yet again offering an example and inspiration to other countries.

Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson is Head of International at Involve
Dr Maja Horst
Dr Maja Horst is an Associate Professor in the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School
Professor Alan Irwin
Professor Alan Irwin is Dean of Research at Copenhagen Business School
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