By Robin Clarke, Sciencewise Dialogue and Engagement Specialist
Sciencewise recently hosted a series of very well attended workshop sessions at both Civil Service Live in London and Edinburgh. Civil Service Live is the largest learning event for UK civil servants. The main aim of our sessions was to outline how public dialogue can be part of the evidence base for better policy making and hopefully mean that difficult policy decisions can move forward avoiding the uncertain and often unsuccessful ‘decide, announce and defend’ mode of operating.
We had decided to use the Sciencewise supported dialogue about mitochondria transfer techniques as a case study as it has a good clear link between the dialogue process and the impact on policy. Then just before the session I received an email saying that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical issues in Washington DC, chaired by deliberative democracy heavyweight Dr Amy Gutmann had praised the mitochondria transfer dialogue. What made it even more pleasing was that the mitochondrial dialogue was chosen as one of only three examples, and the only one from outside the US, to show what good public is and the effect it can have. In her presentation, Dr Gutmann said:
"Following processes of public deliberation, the House of Commons and the House of Lords approved regulations on mitochondrial donation in 2015. The United Kingdom is the first country in the world to approve a regulated system for the use of mitochondrial donation. That is something that we, as a deliberative commission, really admire and applaud. It was really a model of putting public deliberation into practice."
To bolster that endorsement we also had guest speakers from the Scottish Government’s Office of the Chief Scientific Advisor, and from Defra talking about their positive experiences of public dialogue.
During our sessions in London we were able to take questions from the audience. Below are some which may be of interest to many readers new to public dialogue:
Who are the public? How do you select participants?
Interestingly, we had similar questions raised during last year’s CSL and explored these issues further in a previous blog.
How do you eliminate bias in dialogue?
This is an interesting question, which is often asked. Sciencewise requires that the lead body sets up a Project Oversight Group containing a range of stakeholders to assist in the commissioning process and oversee the delivery of the project. These stakeholders will generally represent a broad spectrum of views from those in favour of a technology/policy to those against it. For example in the mitochondria donation public dialogue we had stakeholders representing different religious beliefs and eminent scientists overseeing and inputting to the material, which was presented to the public. In addition, for most of the projects, we have scientists and experts attending the meetings with the public or providing input to the material being presented to ensure that a broad range of views is given to the public before they are asked to consider and discuss the issue.
If you would like to find out more, please email me your questions. For those who were not able to attend this year’s conference in either Edinburgh or London, a recording of Sciencewise’s presentation is available here.
It was very noticeable that many of the other sessions in Edinburgh and London were also about the changing nature of policy making in the UK and how it needs to be more outward facing and inclusive than in the past.
Just before the start of my first session in Edinburgh an announcement came over the tannoy system that the session on national security was about to start and the guest presenter was going to be the Head of MI6. I half expected some twitching from my attendees but they all stayed in their seats, maybe they had read the US Presidential Commission report and wanted to know more, or maybe they were just being polite.