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Value and benefits of dialogue. A route to better policy.

"The Government believes that if the UK is to take better advantage of the opportunities for creating wealth and improving quality of life offered by scientific discovery and technological development, it is crucial that we develop new approaches to bring funders, scientists and the public together in more equal and constructive dialogue to explore emerging issues and wider possibilities." (Sciencewise Guiding Principles)

Government routinely engages with experts and stakeholders to inform its thinking. In many cases there is a need for greater insights and this engagement is not sufficient. Policies that emerge have sometimes been difficult or impossible to implement because they fail to take account of broader public concerns. Public dialogue is increasingly recognised as filling this evidence gap for policy-makers.

"Public dialogue is a process during which members of the public interact with scientists, stakeholders (for example, research funders, businesses and pressure groups) and policy makers to deliberate on issues relevant to future policy decisions." (Sciencewise Guiding Principles)

The benefits of public dialogue

Evaluations of public dialogue projects have identified numerous benefits for all those involved - including participants, scientists and other stakeholders. More specifically, evaluations have shown that public dialogue has benefits for improving policy and decision making, with examples of how it has achieved the following:

  • Policy is more socially informed, making it more robust and credible with less chance of negative social impacts.
  • Policy is more publicly acceptable, because it is ‘developed with an understanding of how and why the public is likely to react, where they will draw the line, where are the issues of conflict and consensus, and what the public suggest will and will not work in practice
  • Policy is more cost effective in the long term, because the likelihood of future unforeseen conflict is reduced and final decisions are easier to implement as they are based on the best possible knowledge from a range of sources

Public dialogue provides a structured safe space in which decision makers can gain direct experience of the hopes and fears, and views and values of the public, enabling them to ‘find ways forward that go with the grain of public views, and avoid the conflicts and entrenched positions that can result in the complete rejection of new technologies'. (FAQs 2012)

Costs and benefits

Public dialogue can save money in the long term and contributes to effective risk management - helping to avoid reputational damage and legal challenges (and costs) through, for example, judicial reviews and parliamentary questions.

More specifically, public opposition to new technologies can result in large costs managing conflict, as well as the opportunity costs of new developments and innovation being delayed or prevented.

The costs of dialogue are minimal compared to the costs of the programmes affected. For example:

  • The Nanodialogues project cost £240,000; the value of nano research in 2007 was estimated at $12 billion
  • The Open Data dialogue was influential in enabling progress to be made on access to data. One estimate of the value of Big Data to Europe's public sector administration is €250 billion per year; the Open Data public dialogue cost £58,800.
  • The global synthetic biology market was estimated to grow from $1.6 billion in 2011 to $10.8 billion in 2016; the Synthetic Biology public dialogue cost £334,000.
  • The Geoengineering dialogue results fed directly into an EPSRC sandpit workshop developing proposals for future research funding, resulting in the inclusion of discussion on moral and ethical issues, leading to two new research projects valued at £3.3 million; the public dialogue cost £182,000.
  • The Stem Cell Dialogue in 2007 cost £300,000 but the dialogue helped policy makers to find a way forward that enabled the UK to take a leading position in regenerative medicine - an industry worth £500 million per annum in 2009.

There is also some evidence that avoiding policy mistakes can save money (Sciencewise Evaluation Impacts Summary 2013):

The Wellbeing Dialogue in 2011 cost £264,000. The dialogue was influential in the decision not to proceed with a proposed separate social marketing campaign that was being developed by a public mental health team in the Department of Health, potentially saving significant funds. A similar campaign, Change4Life, spent over £10 million on activities encouraging healthier lifestyles in one year.

In summary:

"If you think dialogue is expensive, try conflict"

Andrew Acland (Sciencewise Dialogue and Engagement Specialist)