A growing preoccupation of government officials is the optimisation of interactions with society concerning issues that have a significant scientific component.
In a number of well-known areas (e.g. genetically modified foods and crops, genetic testing, nanotechnology, storage of nuclear wastes, the relationship between science and religion), vigorous public debates have been under way for some time in many OECD countries.
There is, furthermore, an entire constellation of inter-linked, high-visibility issues where science plays an essential role: climate change, energy, environmental protection and sustainability. The informed consent of the public as well as that of other stakeholders is increasingly needed and sought to select and implement the correct solutions in these domains.
Accordingly, the organisation of the dialogue between science and society is of vital importance to policy makers.
Traditionally, the dialogue has largely been limited to a one way-transfer of knowledge from experts to laypersons, i.e. the promotion of the “public understanding of science”. This traditional approach was based on a “deficit model” in which the public was perceived as having an inadequate understanding of the methods and results of science. In this model, the acceptance of top-down decisions had to be pursued via uni-directional communication and education.
The model has, however, shown its limits. Today, citizens are directly affected by science and technology and refuse to simply be passive recipients of new products and technologies, however innovative they may be.
Furthermore, the scientific enterprise is not blindly accepted as beneficial to society. What appears increasingly required is a true bi-directional dialogue, going beyond traditional science education or simply securing the unquestioning acceptance by citizens of scientifically validated truths. Policy makers are searching for ways to respond to the new importance and assertiveness of the public.
In October 2007, the Delegation of France proposed a new activity on Improving the Dialogue with Society on Scientific Issues. Following the extensive work of an expert steering committee, and a preliminary survey conducted by a consultant (Dr. Remy Lestienne), a workshop was held in Paris on 17-18 September 2008, at the CNRS Headquarters. It was attended by representatives from 18 countries and international organisations.
The final report of this activity analyses the shift from the traditional approach of “public understanding of science” to a multi-directional dialogue, involving society’s different stakeholders and the general public. It is focused on the practical aspect of the dialogue process and provides recommendations for each step of such an undertaking:
• The rationale: objectives of and participants in a dialogue
• The methodology: organising and conducting a dialogue
• The results: formulating and using the output of a dialogue
A number of difficult questions were addressed, such as choosing the right timing and participants, the framing of the question, the difference between risks and uncertainties, the fairness of the process, or the translation into actionable policies. A number of additional and yet unsolved issues were identified, deserving of further analysis.