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20/08/2014

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Public engagement round the world

Roland Schaer, Aziz Bensalah and Penny Park with developments abroad

France: significant initiatives

Roland Schaer distils the lessons

InFrance, as in most developed countries, we are greatly concerned about the risks of new technologies, and ‘precaution’ is a controversial matter.  The precautionary principle was inserted explicitly into the Charter for the Environment, which was adopted into the French constitution in 2005. We also have many, very active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of them very radical, especially in the fields of environment, health and consumption. 

Roland Schaer distils the lessons

InFrance, as in most developed countries, we are greatly concerned about the risks of new technologies, and ‘precaution’ is a controversial matter.  The precautionary principle was inserted explicitly into the Charter for the Environment, which was adopted into the French constitution in 2005. We also have many, very active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some of them very radical, especially in the fields of environment, health and consumption. 

On top of that, we have heated discussions about the participation of civil society in decision processes. Roughly speaking, many politicians think that deliberation should be confined to experts and decision-makers. To open it more widely, they argue, would be to question the principles of representative democracy and the legitimacy of experts. Others see this openness as legitimate, enriching democracy and producing better decisions.

French initiatives

In the last five years the situation has evolved, and we have had three significant initiatives at the national level. 

First, the Grenelle [Round Table] de l’environnement. For three months in 2007, we had an important process of consultation on six main topics including climate change, biodiversity and sustainable production and consumption. Government, local authorities, trade unions, NGOs and industry all took part. The process led to 268 ‘commitments’, which resulted in two laws discussed and voted by parliament between 2008 and 2010.

Second, the Etats Généraux de la bioéthique. In2009, in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary discussion of legislation on bioethics, the Department of Health organised a national deliberation of research on stem cells and embryos, preimplantation diagnosis, medically-assisted reproduction, transplantation and predictive medicine. The consultation involved three consensus conferences which led to recommendations by panels of lay citizens.

Third, the Débat national sur les nanotechnologies. Last year, a national commission organized a big public discussion about the development of nanotechnologies. The process failed spectacularly. This was mainly because the topic was so vague and wide-ranging that it was not clear whether any decision was at stake, causing confusion between information and deliberation.

Lessons

We have learned that these situations demand formal procedures, based on strong methodologies. We need to design deliberations so that they are legitimate and inspire confidence. Specifically, it is crucial to be explicit about what is at stake in the decision process: whether it’s consultation, hearings, participation or something else.  We must also make sure that topics are not too vague. This shortcoming made it impossible to carry out the national debate on nanotechnologies.

Morocco: promoting public understanding

Aziz Bensalah describes a national network

InMorocco, the National Network for promotion and diffusion of Scientific and Technical Culture (RNCST) was created in March 2008 by the National Centre for Scientific and Technical Research (CNRST). The network groups together the Moroccan university structures working in the field of Scientific and Technical Culture (CST).

Aziz Bensalah describes a national network

InMorocco, the National Network for promotion and diffusion of Scientific and Technical Culture (RNCST) was created in March 2008 by the National Centre for Scientific and Technical Research (CNRST). The network groups together the Moroccan university structures working in the field of Scientific and Technical Culture (CST).

Its general objective is to help Moroccan citizens understand the challenges of scientific, technical and industrial advances. To this end, it creates, supports and/or coordinates CST actions at local, regional and national levels. It is sponsored by the CNRST which ensures its functioning by the granting of an annual budget.

Although it addresses all audiences, RNCST’s activities are focused on youth, pupils and students. Alongside national institutions empowered to do so, it works towards defining and implementing an effective and coordinated CST policy inMorocco.

Joining the RNCST offers its members access to funding for their CST projects, exchanging and sharing resources with other members of the network and links with foreign partners.

At the end of 2010, the RNCST included eight structures: The Club of Scientific Journalism (Marrakech), The All for Science Club (Kenitra), The Citizenship Science Club (Casablanca), The Museum of Natural History (Marrakech), The Scientific and Cultural Ibn Zohr Club (Agadir), The Nature and Heritage Association (Oujda), The Health and Environment Helios Club (Mohammedia) and the Mediterranean Association for Popularization of Science (Tetouan).

Activities

The general approach of RNCST’s activities is public understanding of science. They vary according toMorocco’s specific audiences: urban-rural, educated-uneducated, which daily language spoken. The tools are diverse and well known: interactive exhibitions, film projections, café-science, video-conference, thematic outings. A creative approach taken during some of the rural outings is to couple scientific activity for children with health awareness and care for parents provided by accompanying physicians.

Some of the annual Network events have an international dimension: The Festival of the Scientific Film of Marrakech organized by the Club of Scientific Journalism and The Crossing of the Oriental organized by the Nature and Heritage Association. The Citizenship Science Club has started a ‘Science and Experiment’ competition inCasablancaand intends to extend it to allMorocco. The Scientific and Cultural Ibn Zohr Club owns an interesting collection of meteorites collected inSouth Morocco. Each year, theMuseumofNatural Historyorganizes scientific days where, beside the scientific conference, young are invited to visit its fauna and flora collections and participate to workshop on classification of the species.

The RNCST has also national events. In October 2009, it co-organized with the CNRST, the first international meeting on CST inMorocco.

Canada: engaging in discussion

Scientists must step up, says Penny Park

Science was woven into the fabric of this country from the start.  It didn’t just begin last century with the discovery of insulin or the development of this century’s BlackBerry.

Decades before Confederation, the legislature of the Province of Canada set aside £1,500 for a geological survey. From that actionCanada’s first scientific agency was born - the Geological Survey ofCanada– and with it the cataloguing of this country’s natural resources, minerals, soil and forests.

Civic engagement

Scientists must step up, says Penny Park

Science was woven into the fabric of this country from the start.  It didn’t just begin last century with the discovery of insulin or the development of this century’s BlackBerry.

Decades before Confederation, the legislature of the Province of Canada set aside £1,500 for a geological survey. From that actionCanada’s first scientific agency was born - the Geological Survey ofCanada– and with it the cataloguing of this country’s natural resources, minerals, soil and forests.

Civic engagement

People are still interested in science. We get most of our scientific information from mass media but that source is undergoing mammoth institutional upheaval. From flu vaccines to embryonic stem cell research to oil extraction from tar sands and genetically modified salmon, there are social, legal and political consequences to consider and fewer skilled specialist journalists with a background in science to handle these stories.

In fact today, there are only half the number of full-time science journalists working in staff positions in Canadian media as there were 30 years ago.

Additional media coverage of science issues is essential – but more coverage is only part of the solution.   If we believe in true civic engagement, then the media coverage must be evidence-based and well told. This in turn helps to spark discussion and further debate. Reading, watching or listening to science news is correlated to positive attitudes towards science. Content that is presented in terms of everyday experience, using language and metaphors from everyday life is more likely to affect attitudes. It sounds simple – but unfortunately it is not.

Scientists’ misunderstanding

Scientists must be willing to step up and enter the discussion in terms that the public can understand. A recent series of workshops by theAmericanAcademyof Arts and Sciences found that while the public might misunderstand science, scientists frequently misunderstand the public.

Partly the problem arises because scientists believe that when the public has the facts, the public will agree with them.  The reality is that we come to our decisions about science through preconceived ideas and values, often looking at evidence to confirm what we already believe. How then to overcome our own biases to evaluate the science and engage in a useful discussion of the trade-offs of costs, benefits and risk?

Social scientists are pointing the way to a two-way conversation. It’s not about spin; it’s about access to full information and being included in solutions. Collaboration, and open public discussion before policy decisions are reached, will help create consensus. The even more daunting challenge is that increasingly those discussions must be held not just within countries but among countries.

Dr Roland Schaer
Dr Roland Schaer is the Director of Science in Society at Universcience, Paris. See http://www.universcience.fr/en/welcome
Professor Aziz Bensalah
Professor Aziz Bensalah is Head of the unit for the promotion and diffusion of scientific and technical culture at the CNRST (Morocco) and Coordinator of the RNCST
Penny Park
Penny Park is Executive Director of the Science Media Centre of Canada
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