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

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 .

Influencing and enabling policy:

Over the last 5 years the work of Sciencewise-ERC has shown that public dialogue has:

Influenced  public policy by providing evidence of the richness and strength of public views and ideas (e.g. influenced priorities for investment in nanotechnology research, and the extent and conditions for the use of hybrid embryos for research). By 2009, 14 major Sciencewise-ERC projects had worked with 12,595 public participants, providing immediate face-to-face feedback to policy makers, as well as reports summarising the public views, concerns and aspirations.

Influenced practice by helping Government learn how dialogue can build legitimacy and accountability with the public and contribute to greater trust in science-based decision making. By 2009, 10 full evaluations had been completed of the 14 Sciencewise-ERC projects.

Enabled progress to be made on strategically significant, sometimes highly contentious topics by supporting policy makers to find ways forward that go with the grain of the publics views, and avoid the conflicts and entrenched positions that can result in the complete rejection of new technologies.

Improved the quality of communications between Government, scientists and the public by providing a rich understanding of the public’s potential concerns and aspirations on new science and technologies. Policy makers are then better prepared to discuss the implications with the media and the wider public.

Increased public awareness and understanding of science and technology issues, both among immediate participants and their contacts.  Evaluations show that each dialogue participant is likely to talk to 30 others. This 1:30 ratio of spread of public interest, enthusiasm and knowledge means that Sciencewise-ERC dialogue participants will talk to and influence approaching 400,000 members of the public.

Driven sustainable behaviour change by affecting the views and behaviour of participants, and resulting in the creation of public allies and ambassadors for implementing potentially controversial policies.

Driven synergy and integration across Government by bringing together different departments to work on dialogue projects.

Economic benefits of dialogue

In the majority of cases, the scale of investment in dialogue projects is dwarfed by the scale of the policy fields that dialogue has influenced. For example:

The Nanodialogues dialogue project in 2006 cost a total of £240,000 for four different processes which over 26 months explored nanotechnology and upstream engagement, reaching 100 citizens directly. The value of nano research in 2007 was estimated to be about $12 billion; and the value of nano-enabled products was estimated then to be around $50 billion (Jack Stilgoe, 2007, Nanodialogues. Experiments in public engagement with science. Demos, London).

The stem cell dialogue in 2007 cost £300,000 and involved 200 public participants in 5 regional workshops plus 50 stakeholders. Continuing support for stem cell research has placed the UK in a leading position in regenerative medicine, currently a more than £500 million per annum industry, estimated to rise to around £1 billion by 2013 (Research Councils UK, 2009, Excellence with Impact).

Overall, the evidence indicates that the costs of not doing public dialogue can far outweigh the costs of the dialogue. Public opposition can delay or entirely prevent continuing policy development, innovation and new technologies.

Public dialogue allows policy makers 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.

“If you think dialogue is expensive, try conflict.”

Andrew Acland