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See-through Science: Why public engagement needs to move upstream

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Spurred on by high profile controversies over BSE, GM crops and now nanotechnology, scientists have gradually started to involve the public in their work. They looked first to education as the answer, then to processes of dialogue and participation. But these efforts have not yet proved sufficient. In See-through Science, James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis argue that we are on the cusp of a new phase in debates over science and society. Public engagement is about to move upstream. Scientists need to find ways of listening to and valuing more diverse forms of public knowledge and social intelligence. Only by opening up innovation processes at an early stage can we ensure that science contributes to the common good. Debates about risk are important. But the public also wants answers to the more fundamental questions at stake in any new technology: Who owns it? Who benefits from it? To what purposes will it be directed? This pamphlet offers practical guidance for scientists, policy-makers, research councils, businesses and NGOs – anyone who is trying to make engagement work. It is an argument with profound implications for the future of science.
See-through Science
Why public engagement needs
to move upstream
James Wilsdon
Rebecca Willis
The task is to make
visible the invisible,
to expose to public
scrutiny the
assumptions, values
and visions that
drive science
See-through Science
Why public engagement needs to move
Spurred on by high profile
controversies over BSE, GM crops
and now nanotechnology, scientists
have gradually started to involve the
public in their work. They looked
first to education as the answer, then
to processes of dialogue and
participation. But these efforts have
not yet proved sufficient.
In See-through Science,James
Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis argue
that we are on the cusp of a new
phase in debates over science and
society. Public engagement is about
to move upstream.
Scientists need to find ways of
listening to and valuing more diverse
forms of public knowledge and social
intelligence. Only by opening up
innovation processes at an early
stage can we ensure that science
contributes to the common good.
Debates about risk are important.
But the public also wants answers to
the more fundamental questions at
stake in any new technology: Who
owns it? Who benefits from it? To
what purposes will it be directed?
This pamphlet offers practical
guidance for scientists, policy-makers,
research councils, businesses and
NGOs anyone who is trying to
make engagement work.
It is an argument with profound
implications for the future of science.
Can upstream engagement reshape
not only the way that scientists relate
to the public, but also the very
foundations on which the scientific
enterprise rests?
James Wilsdon is Head of Strategy at
Demos. Rebecca Willis is Associate Director
of Green Alliance and Vice-Chair of the UK’s
Sustainable Development Commission.
This report was produced in partnership
with Green Alliance, Environment Agency
and RSA.
See-through Science
James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis
ISBN 1 84180 130 5
Price £10
© Demos 2004
Technology and Science, Policy-
making, Environment
ISBN 1–84180–130–5
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See-through Science
Why public engagement needs
to move upstream
James Wilsdon
Rebecca Willis
Foreword by Barbara Young
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Acknowledgements 9
Foreword 11
1. The stage is set 13
2. Science and the social imagination 25
3. The rules of engagement 37
4. Open innovation 48
5. See-through science 55
Notes 63
Demos 7
This pamphlet started life as a paper for the July 2003 Progressive
Governance summit, which was subsequently published in Tony
Giddens’ edited collection The Progressive Manifesto (Polity Press
2003). We are grateful to everyone who contributed to that initial
version of the argument.
The Environment Agency has generously supported us in
producing a fuller account of the case for ‘upstream public
engagement. Many thanks to those at the Agency who provided
helpful input: John Colvin, Michael Depledge, Phil Irving, Jimi Irwin,
Peter Madden and Ronan Palmer.
Thanks also to Penny Egan, Susie Harries, Simon Lock and the
steering group of the RSAs Forum for Technology, Citizens and the
Market for their involvement in the project, and for generously
offering to host the launch event.
We are grateful to those we interviewed or who informed our
thinking during the research process, including: Rob Doubleday, Sue
Mayer, Monica Winstanley, George Smith, Nick Pidgeon, Jim
Thomas, Andy Stirling, Kathy Sykes and Gary Kass. At Demos, Tom
Bentley gave us his usual mix of valuable advice and support, Briony
Greenhill provided excellent research assistance, and Eddie Gibb, Paul
Miller and Claire Ghoussoub made important contributions at key
stages. Thanks also to Guy Thompson and Jennie Oldham at Green
Above all, we owe an enormous intellectual debt to our friends and
colleagues at Lancaster University: Brian Wynne, Robin Grove-White,
Phil Macnaghten and Matthew Kearnes. For more than a decade, the
‘Lancaster school’ has pioneered a way of thinking about science,
technology and society that has inspired and informed the argument
in these pages. They and others will spot where we have drawn from
their ideas. Any errors or omissions remain entirely our own.
James Wilsdon
Rebecca Willis
August 2004
See-through Science
The authors
Demos 9
James Wilsdon is Head of Strategy at Demos, where he leads research
on science, technology and sustainable development. His recent
publications include:
Masters of the Universe: science, politics and the new
space race (with Melissa Mean, Demos, 2004); The Adaptive State:
strategies for personalising the public realm (ed. with Tom Bentley,
Demos, 2003); and
Digital Futures: living in a networked world (ed.,
Earthscan 2001). He is Chair of People and Planet, an Associate
Director of Forum for the Future, and an Honorary Research Fellow
of the Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy at
Lancaster University; (
Rebecca Willis is Associate Director of Green Alliance and Vice-Chair
of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission. Previously she
was a policy adviser at the European Parliament. Her recent
publications include: Next Steps for Energy Taxation (with Paul Ekins
et al., PSI/Green Alliance, 2002); Precaution in Practice: how the
precautionary principle is used by government, business and NGOs
(with Jennie Oldham, Green Alliance, 2002); Steps into Uncertainty:
handling risk and uncertainty in environmental policy making (with
Beatrice Rose, Green Alliance/ESRC, 2000); (rwillis@green-
Barbara Young
Demos 11
Te chnological innovation is vital both to the economy and to the
environment. Innovation drives much of our economic growth. And
new technologies can deliver solutions to environmental problems.
For example, new renewable energy technologies will help us to
tackle climate change. Devices to save water will protect river
catchments and sensitive ecosystems. Biological waste treatments and
soil remediation can reduce pressure on landfill sites. And hydrogen
fuel cells will cut air pollution.
New technology can also help us do our job more effectively. Data
from environmental sensors can now be relayed via mobile phones
and satellites to give us a real-time picture of water quality in our
rivers. This will allow us to respond quickly to pollution incidents.
New communications technologies allow us to warn people about
impending floods.
As a regulatory Agency, we know that, designed in the right way,
regulation can stimulate innovation. We see this as core to our task of
delivering modern regulation.
The Government’s Innovation Review has set out a number of new
policy initiatives to promote environmental innovation. The Agency
is working with DTI and Defra on research into how regulation and
product policy can stimulate innovations to improve resource
efficiency. We are also part of the DTI Environmental Innovations
Advisory Group, which aims to identify and resolve any regulatory
barriers to environmental innovation. We welcome early engagement
with the developers of new technologies, to help us plan for any
changes we will have to make to the way we work.
As well as bringing opportunities, the very rapid development and
dissemination of technology also brings challenges. We regulate many
facilities where new technologies are developed and applied. In some
cases we can adapt existing approaches but, in others, new ways of
regulating will be required. We must be flexible and keep pace with
technological developments in order to protect the environment.
Broader societal acceptance of new technologies, especially where
they are novel and raise concerns, requires open dialogue throughout
the development process. If opportunities are to be realised, then
engagement and dialogue must take place at the right time and
involve the right people. Information must be made available in a
format that can be understood easily. All sides in the debate have
responsibilities: scientists must be willing to answer questions openly
and honestly, industry must engage early and widely, and pressure
groups and the media must be responsible in their use of science.
I firmly believe that the economy, society and the environment will
benefit from more public engagement in research and development.
Opening up the world of research and encouraging scientists to
acknowledge the broader social and economic context within which
their research will be applied should deliver more useful scientific
outputs. But these must address the issues that matter to those
affected by the technologies.
It is my hope that this progressive agenda will deliver scientific
outputs that help us to understand better the range of technical and
social issues that can impact on the environment. I also hope that
public trust in government and its agencies will be enhanced if the
role of scientific information in the decision-making process becomes
clearer. By working together we can build public confidence in science
and reap the benefits of well-directed innovation. We seek
opportunities to work with others towards this goal and welcome this
pamphlet as a helpful contribution to the debate.
Barbara Young is Chief Executive of the Environment Agency
See-through Science
12 Demos
1. The stage is set
Demos 13
On 29 July 2004, a mile down the road from Londons West End, the
curtain rose on a unique theatrical experiment. Its theme was
nanotechnology, the science of small things. The venue was the Royal
Society, the headquarters of Britains scientific elite. The immediate
audience was a group of journalists, but the performance was then
relayed to a larger public: policy-makers, scientists, business leaders
and campaigners, all eagerly waiting to interpret its meaning.
We live in a political culture that is steeped in science. When faced
with dilemmas over food safety or phone masts, climate change or
child vaccination, the first response of politicians and regulators is to
seek refuge in ‘sound science’ and the advisors who produce it. These
experts and the panels and committees they inhabit are vital to the
smooth running of our political system. But how do they make their
advice credible to a sceptical public? What techniques of legitimacy
do they use?
One answer is that they act. According to the sociologist Stephen
Hilgartner, expert advice is a form of drama. Hilgartner uses the
metaphor of performance to explain how scientific advisors speak
with authority on the public stage. Describing a series of reports on
diet and health issued by the US National Academy of Sciences in the
1980s, he draws our attention to the theatrical dynamics at work in
the production, unveiling and dissemination of expert opinion.
‘Reports and recommendations are performances; advisors are
performers who display their work before audiences.
Before a
performance starts, there are months of rehearsal and negotiation
between actors. Once it is under way, a division is maintained between
the back-stage, where scaffolding, costumes and props are hidden
from view, and the front-stage, which is open to public scrutiny.
The Royal Society’s production on 29 July surprised the critics. Its
year-long inquiry into the health, environmental, ethical and social
implications of nanotechnology had resulted in a report of unusual
A few predictable voices remained unconvinced, but the
majority agreed that it was a sparkling performance. Several aspects
were striking:
It relied on an ensemble cast. On the Royal Society’s working group,
alongside the usual principals eminent professors of physics,
medicine, chemistry and engineering, the head of a Cambridge
college and a senior industrialist were some unexpected supporting
players an environmentalist, a social scientist and a consumer
champion. For inquiries of this nature, such voices are often called to
give evidence, but for them to sit as equals alongside ‘real’ scientists is
It was imaginatively staged.In any performance, the stage
management determines which elements are visible to the audience
and which remain invisible. Typically, the work of scientific advisors
takes place out of sight. Debates rage and arguments are resolved in
private, long before the public is presented with a consensus view.
This inquiry tried hard to be more open. Aspects of its performance
were still carefully rehearsed, but there was also room for
improvisation. It consulted widely, ran workshops with stakeholders,
and published evidence on its website.
It was deliberately avant-garde.Anyone familiar with the Royal
Society’s oeuvre could spot instantly that here the style had changed.
The tone was unusually precautionary. Social and ethical issues
received prominent billing. Uncertainty and dialogue were recurring
motifs. One actor was particularly well placed to observe these
changes. Professor Nick Pidgeon sat on the nanotechnology working
group, but also played a leading role in an earlier Royal Society
See-through Science
14 Demos
production: its 1992 report on risk.
Then, the mere suggestion that
risk is socially constructed a heretical notion to many natural
scientists led to the report being downgraded and released without
the society’s full endorsement. Twelve years on, the mood was very
different. A new understanding of science and society is spreading
through the work of the Royal Society, observes Pidgeon. ‘These
perspectives are finally being mainstreamed.
The nanotechnology report represents a change in the scientific
community’s approach to the risks, uncertainties and wider social
implications of new and emerging technologies. In many ways, it
redefines the genre. But to fully appreciate its significance, we need to
locate it in the wider context of relations between science and society.
Three phases of public engagement
Historically, the authority and legitimacy of science as a public good
rested on a perceived division of labour between academia, commerce
and politics. Academic scientists carried out basic research in labora-
tories, motivated purely by the spirit of inquiry. The results of their
endeavours were then applied as technology, but clear dividing lines
separated the worlds of science and business. Politics only entered the
fray in order to regulate the market, manage risks or set standards.
Such divisions were never as clear cut or straightforward, but they
have now entirely broken down. Discrete categories of basic and
applied research no longer hold in a world where the production and
uses of science are intertwined and embedded in dense relationships
with business and politics. This blurring of boundaries has
contributed to a climate where science no longer has an automatic
claim to authority and respect. As the controversies over BSE,
genetically-modified (GM) crops and foods, and now nanotech-
nology illustrate, people are questioning scientists more and trusting
them less. There is particular wariness towards scientists working in
industry and government, and a suspicion of private ownership of
scientific knowledge. Drawing on extensive polling data, Ben Page of
MORI sums up the current state of public opinion: ‘Blind faith in the
men in white coats has gone and isnt coming back.
The stage is set
Demos 15
This is not a surprise. As we move towards knowledge societies that
rely on innovation to drive economic growth, science and technology
are likely to become increasingly contested sites of public debate. As
Sheila Jasanoff notes, such ‘far-reaching alterations in the nature and
distribution of resources and the roles of science, industry and the
state could hardly occur without wrenching political conflicts’.
Nanotechnology is only one of several areas where the pace of
innovation is accelerating. Others such as genomics, neuroscience,
pervasive computing and artificial intelligence are giving rise to
distinct sets of ethical and social dilemmas.
The response of the science establishment to these fluctuating and
unpredictable cycles of public and media response has been to reach
out and experiment with new forms of public engagement. They are
not alone in this. Government repeatedly goes through the same
cycle. Confronted with public ambivalence or outright hostility
towards different forms of technological, social or political
innovation – whether stem cell research, reform of the NHS or war in
Iraq the standard political response is a promise to listen harder.
Ours is an era of big conversations’, of government by focus group
and MORI poll.
But as New Labour has discovered to its cost, talk of engagement
can backfire unless it has a demonstrable impact. Those whose
engagement is being sought need to know that their participation will
affect the policies and processes under discussion. They want
assurance that trajectories of change and innovation will take
meaningful account of their views.
This same principle applies to public engagement in science. For
the past 20 years, in response to a perceived ‘crisis of trust’, scientists
have been slowly inching their way towards involving the public in
their work. They looked first to education as the answer, and more
recently to processes of dialogue and participation. But these efforts,
while admirable, have not yet proved sufficient. Our argument in this
pamphlet is that we are on the cusp of a new phase, in which public
engagement moves upstream.
See-through Science
16 Demos
Phase 1: Public understanding of science (PUS)
The initial response of scientists to growing levels of public detach-
ment and mistrust was to embark on a mission to inform. Attempts
to gauge levels of public understanding date back to the early 1970s,
when annual surveys carried out by the US National Science Founda-
tion regularly uncovered gaps in people’s knowledge of scientific facts
(for example, whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa).
Walter Bodmer’s 1985 report for the Royal Society placed PUS firmly
on the UK agenda, and proclaimed ‘It is clearly a part of each
scientist’s professional responsibility to promote the public under-
standing of science.
The Bodmer report gave birth to a clutch of
initiatives designed to tackle the blight of public ignorance, including
COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.
Phase 2: From deficit to dialogue
For more than a decade, the language and methods of PUS oozed
across the face of UK science policy. But instead of lubricating
understanding, scientists gradually discovered that PUS was clogging
the cracks and pores which might have allowed genuine dialogue to
breathe. Implicit within PUS was a set of questionable assumptions
about science, the public and the nature of understanding. It relied on
a ‘deficit model’ of the public as ignorant and science as unchanging
and universally comprehensible. Partly as a result of PUS’s failings,
relations between science and society festered throughout the 1990s,
and an occasional rash of blisters erupted (the BSE crisis, GM crops,
mobile phones, MMR). It wasn’t until 2000 that PUS was washed
away,when an influential House of Lords report detected a new
mood for dialogue.
Out went PUS, which even the government’s
Chief Scientific Adviser now acknowledged was ‘a rather backward-
looking vision.
In came the new language of ‘science and society’
and a fresh impetus towards dialogue and engagement.
Phase 3: Moving engagement upstream
The House of Lords report detected ‘a new humility on the part of
science in the face of public attitudes, and a new assertiveness on the
The stage is set
Demos 17
part of the public’.
And in the four years since it was published,
there has been a perceptible change. Consultation papers, focus
groups, stakeholder dialogues and citizens’ juries have been grafted
on to the ailing body of British science, in the hope that they will give
it a new lease of life. Every so often, a few drops of PUS still dribble
out from a Lewis Wolpert or a Lord Taverne,
but these voices are
now a dwindling force. The science community has embraced
dialogue and engagement, if not always with enthusiasm, then at least
out of a recognition that BSE, GM and other controversies have made
it a non-negotiable clause of their ‘licence to operate’.
Ye t despite this progress, the link from public engagement back to
the choices, priorities and everyday practices of science remains fuzzy
and unclear. Processes of engagement tend to be restricted to
particular questions, posed at particular stages in the cycle of
research, development and exploitation. Possible risks are endlessly
debated, while deeper questions about the values, visions and vested
interests that motivate scientific endeavour often remain unasked or
unanswered. And as the GM case demonstrates, when these larger
issues force themselves on to the table, the public may discover that it
is too late to alter the developmental trajectories of a technology.
Political, economic and organisational commitments may already be
in place, narrowing the space for meaningful debate.
But now, a new term has entered the lexicon of public engagement.
Scientists and science policy-makers are increasingly recognising the
limitations of existing approaches, and there has been a surge of
interest in moving engagement ‘upstream. In a paper for the 2003
Progressive Governance conference, Demos and Green Alliance
explored the case for upstream engagement in the context of nano-
Much nanotechnology is at an equivalent stage in R&D terms to
biotechnology in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The forms
and eventual applications of the technology are not yet
determined. We still have the opportunity to intervene and
improve the social sensitivity of innovation processes at the
See-through Science
18 Demos
design-stage to avoid the mistakes that were made over GM
and other technologies.
The language of upstream engagement features in several recent
policy statements. The Royal Society’s nanotechnology report acknow-
ledges that ‘Most developments in nanotechnologies, as viewed in
2004, are clearly “upstream” in nature
and calls for ‘a constructive
and proactive debate about the future of nanotechnologies [to] be
undertaken now at a stage when it can inform key decisions about
their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised
positions appear.
The government appears to agree. Welcoming the Royal Society’s
findings, Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, said ‘We have learnt
that it is necessary with major technologies to ensure that the debate
takes place “upstream, as new areas emerge in the scientific and
technological development process.
And most significantly, the
government’s new ten-year strategy for science and innovation
includes a commitment ‘to enable [public] debate to take place
upstream in the scientific and technological development process,
and not “downstream where technologies are waiting to be exploited
but may be held back by public scepticism brought about through
poor engagement and dialogue on issues of concern.
A few lessons learned
What has triggered this sudden enthusiasm for upstream
engagement? There are a variety of factors and motivations at work.
Most immediately, policy-makers and the science community are
desperate to avoid nanotechnology becoming ‘the next GM’. The
wounds of that battle are still raw, and there is little appetite for a
rerun. One of the criticisms levelled at the 2003 ‘GM Nation?’ debate
is that it took place too late to influence the direction of GM research,
or to alter the institutional and economic commitments of key
players. The GM–nano comparison should not be applied in an
uncritical way, but there is little doubt that the remit of the Royal
The stage is set
Demos 19
Society inquiry, and its call for more upstream debate, was pro-
foundly influenced by GM.
Second, this desire to learn from what has gone before extends
beyond GM across the wider realm of biotechnology and the life
sciences. It is widely felt that processes of public debate and engage-
ment around human embryology and genetics, from the pioneering
work of the Warnock Committee in the 1980s through to the
activities of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and
the Human Genetics Commission today, have ‘worked’ in a way that
similar processes around GM have ‘failed’.
Interesting assumptions
lie behind such framings of ‘success’ and ‘failure, but there are
instructive contrasts to be drawn. As Sheila Jasanoff notes: ‘If the
growth of agricultural biotechnologies was marked by too little
deliberation, then human biotechnologies seem burdened by almost a
surfeit of public soul-searching.
One reason why public debates
over human biotechnology are considered to have played out more
successfully is that deliberative processes began early and have kept
pace with scientific developments.
This connects to a third set of motivations for policy-makers to
embrace upstream engagement. The government has placed great
emphasis on science and innovation as central pillars of its economic
strategy. The foreword to its new ten-year strategy makes the now
familiar argument that ‘nations that can thrive in a highly competitive
global economy will be those that can compete on high technology
and intellectual strength. . . . These are the sources of the new
An extra £1 billion has been allocated to science over the
period of the next spending review a real-term increase of 5.8 per
cent each year until 2008. But a big question remains unanswered:
Will all of this extra cash, and the innovation it aims to unleash,
improve or worsen relations between science and society? The ten-
year strategy addresses this dilemma only indirectly, but its advocacy
of upstream debate is clearly influenced by a desire to remove
obstacles that might upset the innovation apple-cart. Tony Blair was
more explicit about this danger in his May 2002 speech to the Royal
Society: ‘When I was in Bangalore in January, I met a group of
See-through Science
20 Demos
academics who were also in business in the biotech field. They said to
me bluntly: “Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog
you and you will miss out”.
So, in debates over science and society, a small but significant shift
is underway. The sudden vogue for upstream engagement may prove
ephemeral, or may develop into something more promising. Andy
Stirling, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on public engagement, is
optimistic. In a recent paper, he predicts that ‘New political arenas
look set to open up, as “upstream processes of knowledge produc-
tion, technological innovation and institutional commitment begin
to acquire their own distinctive discourses on participation.
Ye t it is also important not to overstate the novelty of moves in this
direction. Sheila Jasanoff describes how in the early years of
biotechnology, upstream efforts to identify risks and explore ethical
dilemmas were led by the science community itself. In 1973, the US
National Academy of Science established a committee under the
chairmanship of Paul Berg to explore the potential risks of
recombinant DNA research. As Jasanoff notes, Thirty years and
several social upheavals later, the Berg committees composition looks
astonishingly narrow: eleven male scientists of stellar credentials, all
already active in rDNA experimentation.
Nonetheless, the
committee’s conclusions were precautionary: it called for a voluntary
moratorium on certain types of research until more was known
about the risks.
At around the same time, the US Office of Technology Assessment
was established to provide Congress with early indications of the
probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of
And in the Netherlands, theorists such as Arie Rip
spent much of the 1980s and 1990s developing methods of
‘constructive technology assessment’ (CTA) for use by the Dutch
government, in an effort to embed social values in the design stages of
Britain was slower to adopt these new techniques, but in 1994,
inspired by Dutch models of CTA and Danish use of consensus
conferences, the Science Museum and the Biotechnology and
The stage is set
Demos 21
Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) organised a consensus
conference on plant biotechnology. This event, held over three days at
Regent’s College in London, is often cited as the first British attempt
at upstream public engagement. In front of an audience of over 300
people, a panel of ordinary citizens took evidence and cross-
examined a range of expert witnesses, before coming to their
What makes the current talk of upstream engagement any different
from what has gone before? Clearly, any new efforts will be informed
by and build on these past experiences and methodologies. But if we
review these earlier approaches, they appear lacking in several
respects. First, they relied primarily on narrow forms of expert
knowledge and analysis. More diverse and plural forms of public
knowledge were either marginalised (in the case of the Berg
Committee or the US Office of Technology Assessment), or implicitly
given lower priority (as in the design of the BBSRC’s consensus
conference, with its reliance on expert witnesses). Second, the
framing of debates and the range of issues up for discussion was
restricted primarily to questions of risk in the application of new
technologies. More fundamental questions around ownership,
control and the social ends to which the technology would be directed
were ignored.
Most importantly, these initiatives usually took place in a vacuum
with no explicit link back to the research choices and innovation
priorities of scientists or industry, or to the decisions of policy-
makers. CTA stands out as an exception, as its results flowed into the
work of the Dutch government. Elsewhere, the connections with
policy were absent from the start, or quickly broken. In the US, the
cautious warnings of the Berg Committee were soon lost in the cloud
of optimism and hubris that enveloped biotechnology, and in 1995,
the Office of Technology Assessment was closed down. In Britain,
there was no clear mechanism through which the conclusions of the
BBSRC’s consensus conference could influence the political and
public debate that followed. One commentator describes it as ‘an
admirable initiative that took place in a political cul-de-sac’.
See-through Science
22 Demos
The purpose of this pamphlet
So, as we embark on a fresh attempt to head upstream, there are
lessons to be learnt and mistakes to be avoided. This pamphlet aims
to make a practical contribution to that task. Our argument is
primarily directed towards UK science policy, but we hope that it also
has resonance elsewhere.
Our intended audience comprises those
with an interest in questions of science and society, but particularly
scientists and academics, their professional institutions, the research
councils, science policy-makers, R&D-led businesses and NGOs.
As you would expect from two authors with a keen involvement in
environmental debates, we also want to explore how these ideas can
contribute to thinking about sustainable development. After almost a
decade of disagreement over GM, relations between the scientific
establishment and the environmental movement have sunk to a
depressingly low ebb. Neither side can have lost sight of the paradox
inherent in a movement which relies on science to understand the
biophysical systems that underpin life on earth (and on technologies
such as renewables to help steer us towards sustainability) locked into
such protracted conflict with the individuals and institutions that
govern British science. Now that an uneasy and no doubt
temporary truce is in place over GM, we hope that these proposals
might contribute in some way to a more constructive climate of
openness and collaboration.
In chapter 2, we argue that debates over science and technology,
even when they involve processes of public engagement, have been
dominated by questions of risk assessment. This framework is too
narrow, and fails to ask or answer the more fundamental questions at
stake in any new technology: Who owns it? Who benefits from it? To
what ends will it be directed?
In chapter 3, we turn to the question of what constitutes a
successful engagement process. We explore the reasons for moving
upstream, and identify what this might look like in practice. We also
discuss the wider implications of public engagement for democracy.
Chapter 4 applies our argument to processes of research and
The stage is set
Demos 23
development within the private sector. We expose some of the
tensions between innovation policy and public engagement, and
identify resources from within management theory and debates over
corporate social responsibility that could be drawn on in resolving
those tensions.
Lastly, chapter 5 suggests some practical ways to embed upstream
engagement in science, government and society. We examine its
implications for public policy, research councils, academia, business,
the media and NGOs, and close by drawing out the implications of
our argument for the process of science itself. If we take the case for
upstream engagement to its logical conclusion, will it not only change
the relationship between science and public decision-making, but
also the very foundations of knowledge on which science rests?
In science, as in politics, answering one question inevitably raises
others. The process of inquiry and learning is endless. We should
know that no matter how well we handle one new development,
controversy is not about to disappear. We cannot hope to reach the
mythical end-point of consensus, the middle ground of prudent
progress behind which everyone can rally. The challenge is to
recognise that we rely on this constant questioning and the
innovation that drives it. Instead of shrinking from scientific and
technological endeavour for fear of the uncertainty that accompanies
it, we should work to create the conditions for science and technology
to thrive. But the simultaneous challenge is to generate new
approaches to the governance of science that can learn from past
mistakes, cope more readily with social complexity, and harness the
drivers of technological change for the common good.
This pamphlet suggests one such approach. To return to the idea of
science as performance, the task of upstream engagement is to
remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the
front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public
scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden.
In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to
dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round.
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24 Demos
2. Science and the social
Demos 25
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always
interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns;
there are things we know we know. We also know there are
known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things
we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns the
ones we don’t know we dont know.
Donald Rumsfeld
Chris Patten came a close runner-up with his observation that ‘having
committed political suicide, the Conservative party is now living to
regret it’. But the 2003 award for most absurd remark by a public
figure went to that guru of obfuscation, Donald Rumsfeld. The US
Secretary of Defense won the Plain English Campaigns ‘Foot In
Mouth trophy for his 62-word attempt to clarify a point at a NATO
press briefing. His intention was to defend Washingtons view that the
US could not wait for ‘absolute proof before taking action against
groups and states suspected of acquiring weapons of mass
destruction, but his remark left NATO allies and journalists
completely baffled. ‘We think we know what he means’, said John
Lister, a spokesman for the Plain English campaign, ‘but we don’t
know if we really know.
Ye t for once, Donald Rumsfeld is on to something. Political
processes, when confronted with advances in science and technology,
are generally incapable of dealing with anything beyond known
uncertainties. They can only address questions that they already know
how to ask. Conversations are framed in a way that denies or edits out
unpredictable consequences. This is despite a growing body of
evidence that it is these same areas of ignorance and ambiguity that
are of greatest public concern.
Researchers at Lancaster University compared public attitudes
towards GM and information technology. They found that contro-
versies arise in areas where, although it is sensed that there is no
knowledge, this is conveyed misleadingly in terms of reductionist
scientific uncertainty. In such situations, the research team identified
a ‘deep cultural dislocation between the way that policy-makers and
the public frame relevant questions. Whilst the former tend to ask
simply “What are the risks?”, the latter ask in addition, “What might
be the unanticipated effects? Who will be in charge of, and will take
responsibility for, the responses to such surprises? And can we trust
Many public engagement processes, however well-
intentioned, get caught in this trap. Questions of risk the known
uncertainties can easily dominate proceedings and squeeze out
broader discussion of unknown or unanticipated consequences.
The tyranny of risk assessment
Why is it that whenever a new development in science or technology
sparks debate, the key elements of that debate are then framed by
scientists and policy-makers as ‘risk issues’? Michael Power argues
that there is now an overwhelming tendency in political and organis-
ational life to reach for ‘the risk management of everything’.
In a
recent Demos pamphlet, he describes how risk management, once an
obscure and technical practice within the private sector, has become a
dominant discourse within public service delivery and at ‘the heart of
government itself.
This is reflected in a 2002 report by the Prime
Minister’s Strategy Unit, which subsequently gave rise to a set of risk
management principles for all government departments.
If we accept Power’s analysis, then the centrality of risk questions
to science and technology debates is part of a much wider trend. But
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26 Demos
in the ‘risk society’,
perhaps the biggest risk is that we never get
around to talking about anything else. Even the ‘new mood for
dialogue’ identified by the House of Lords in 2000 has struggled to
alter this dynamic. Brian Wynne describes how the past five years
have seen a huge flowering of practical and analytical work aimed at
nurturing dialogue and mutual understanding between science and
society. Yet the ‘radical apparent potential’ of these activities ‘is
compromised by deeper, less manifest cultural assumptions and
commitments . . . [which] have yet to be identified, confronted and
Wynne pinpoints two factors that contribute to this problem. The
first is that most forms of public participation are focused on
downstream risks or impacts, ‘reflecting the false assumption that
public concerns are only about instrumental consequences, and not
also crucially about what human purposes are driving science and
innovation in the first place. The second is an assumption that the
task of defining what the salient issues are within processes of public
engagement automatically falls to experts, leaving citizens with ‘no
capability nor proper role in autonomously creating and negotiating .
..more diverse public meanings.
In the next chapter, we explore how engagement processes might
overcome these limitations. Our argument here is not that involving
the public in risk assessment is a bad idea. Quite the opposite: any
process of evaluating risk and designing responses to it is likely to be
greatly enriched by public involvement. There is a rich literature on
participatory risk assessment, and organisations such as the
Environment Agency our partners in this pamphlet have
pioneered the use of these methodologies in their work.
Ye t when we are faced with potentially disruptive innovations, the
danger is that risk assessment however participatory merely digs
us deeper into the hole that we are trying to escape from. It avoids our
real predicament, which is one of ignorance and ambiguity. Debates
are too often framed in terms of ‘Is it safe?’, with the implication that
the likelihood of certain outcomes is susceptible to rational
calculation. More challenging questions which flow from ignorance
Science and the social imagination
Demos 27
about the long-term social consequences of a technology’s develop-
ment are never asked, let alone answered.
This concentration on risk is an entirely understandable way of
rationalising an otherwise open and daunting set of questions. It
reflects what Zygmunt Bauman memorably describes as modernity’s
‘gardening instinct’.
Ye t this desire to tidy the borders and prune the
hedges of our democracy means that many public engagement
processes are stripped of any meaningful content. Sheila Jasanoff
recalls how this process played out in the development of GM
Within barely a decade, environmental consequences that were
once considered speculative and impossible to assess came to be
regarded within policy circles as amenable to rational, scientific
evaluation. By 1990, it appeared that, for genetically modified
crops, apocalyptic visions and the rhetoric of science fiction
could be set aside in favour of objective expert discourses and
routine bureaucratic approvals.
Brian Wynne goes so far as to argue that ‘virtually all of the
mushrooming commitment to public citizen engagement in ‘science
policy’ . . . is something of a mirage’.
One deficit model has gone,
only to be replaced by another a misunderstanding of what is at
stake and what is the basis of public concern. Recently, in the context
of international development, the relentless drive for participation
has been dubbed ‘the new tyranny’.
Here, the process of taking
questions that are essentially political and reducing them to issues of
risk management has a tyrannical aspect of its own.
Downstream, the flow of innovation has absorbed numerous
engagement processes. Yet few of these have any real connection to
the upstream questions that motivate public concern: Why this
technology? Why not another? Who needs it? Who is controlling it? Who
benefits from it? Can they be trusted? What will it mean for me and my
family? Will it improve the environment? What will it mean for people
in the developing world? The challenge and opportunity for
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28 Demos
upstream public engagement is to force some of these questions back
on to the negotiating table, and to do so at a point when they are still
able to influence the trajectories of scientific and technological
This process will also require the tacit visions and assumptions that
shape research priorities to be surfaced. The philosopher Mary
Midgley has written at length about the ‘myths, metaphors, images
and the other half-conscious apparatus’ that form part of the
workings of the scientific imagination.
Ye t despite their importance,
such visions – or ‘imaginaries’ in the jargon of social science – are also
squeezed off the agenda by risk-based approaches to dialogue, and are
rarely opened to wider public scrutiny.
Who needs it?
Te n years ago, the consultancy SustainAbility published a report
called ‘Who Needs It?’, which sought to introduce a new set of
questions into the corporate sustainability arena.
It argued that
simply adding a dash of eco-efficiency or a drop of social
responsibility to the existing mix of products and services was no
longer sufficient. The markets of the future would be shaped by
human values and needs that until now have been unarticulated
and unserved. Key characteristics of this impending values shift
would include a new focus on inter-generational equity, and a
desire to meet the basic needs of people in the developing world.
This would be good news for certain sectors, whose offerings would
adjust well to the new social climate, but bad news for others, who
would eventually discover that they no longer chimed with the
expectations of consumers. To help determine the winners and losers
in this brave new world, the report proposed a ‘needs test that
companies should carry out every time they proposed a new product
or service.
Surveying the business landscape in 2004, the values shift predicted
by SustainAbility still looks to be some distance away. But their report
alerts us to some important questions that are highly relevant to our
analysis. With new technologies, the question ‘Who needs it?’ is very
Science and the social imagination
Demos 29
rarely asked. Means have an awkward habit of becoming ends. There
is often a circularity in the arguments used to support new
developments just because a new technology is possible, it is
therefore seen as desirable. Before a proper conversation can get
underway about the priorities and ends to which the technology
should be directed, policy-makers have already skipped on to the next
layer of questions about how to deal with the risks, benefits and
consequences of its exploitation. Policy and regulatory debates tend
to assume that the debate about ends has already occurred that the
economic and social benefits of innovation are obvious and agreed.
But of course, this is rarely the case.
Similarly, in all the excitement that surrounds new technologies, it
is easy to neglect the untapped potential of the technologies we
already have at our disposal. Our list of unasked questions grows
longer: ‘What are the outcomes that this technology seeks to generate?
Could we get there in another, more sustainable and cost-effective
way?’ We should never underestimate the power that the techno fix
exerts over the political imagination. But as governments everywhere
are learning through bitter experience, environmental problems will
not be solved by technological innovation alone. It is easy to throw
money at the technological end of the problem. But this must be
accompanied by social and political innovation that alters the
frameworks within which choices are made. Charles Leadbeater
makes this point well in the context of transport:
New, more sustainable forms of car transport will require
scientific and technological innovation, such as new fuel sources
for cars. But the true potential will not be realised without social
innovation to create new patterns of car use, and even ways for
consumers to share and own cars through leasing schemes. It will
require regulatory innovations such as road pricing, which may
well only be possible if we have political innovations to give cities
more powers to control their own transport taxation. We need to
imagine not just new technologies, but whole new social systems
for transport.
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30 Demos
A similar point can be applied to energy systems. Our current model
of energy production is not the optimal arrangement it is simply
the product of a series of decisions made over a long period. Vijay
Vaitheeswaran, in his investigation into the history and prospects for
renewable energy, identifies a precise moment back in 1884 when we
unwittingly locked ourselves into the modern, centralised, grid-based
electricity system. He explains that early experiments in
electrification in the US, led by Thomas Edison, centred on stand-
alone ‘micropower’ plants in homes and offices around New York
City.A fight for investment between Edison and his rival Nikola
Tesla, which Edison eventually lost, meant that grid electrification
based on AC technology became the backbone of the electricity
As this story illustrates, the energy system we have is not the only
way of doing things. A return to Edisons micropower vision
updated, of course, with the renewable technologies we now have at
our disposal – offers one route to solving the energy crisis and climate
change. Yet a micropower system is very different, socially and
institutionally, as well as technologically, from our current system. We
cannot simply rejig a few financial incentives and expect micro-
renewables to win out. We need to look not just at technology policy,
but also at issues of planning, land use and building design. In other
words, we need a form of ‘whole-system innovation.
Similar stories could be told about waste, water policy or
agriculture. In each of these areas, technology is part of the solution,
but it is no panacea. No one has made this argument better than Fritz
Schumacher, in his classic text Small is Beautiful.Schumacher
describes how the ‘forward stampede’ advocating new technologies
‘burst into the newspaper headlines every day with the message, a
breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay”.
This constant focus on
‘breakthroughs’ distracts attention from the real, though not very
technological, problems that we face not to mention the real,
though not very technological, solutions which lie within our grasp.
Schumacher recognised this only too well. As he wrote, ‘it takes a
certain flair of real insight to make things simple again.
Science and the social imagination
Demos 31
The politics of small things
As we have seen, two impulses within existing models of public
engagement threaten to undermine their radical potential. The first is
for policy-makers and other experts to restrict the space for debate to
a technocratic discourse around risk. The second is for deeper
questions about human needs and ends to be squeezed off the
agenda. Both of these tendencies were evident during the GM
controversy. But will the same apply to emerging debates over
The Royal Society’s nanotechnology report is a good place to start
in considering this question. Here we find several encouraging signs
of a new approach. A whole chapter is devoted to social and ethical
issues, and another to public dialogue. The latter even includes the
language of upstream debate. Yet viewed in its entirety, the body
language of the report still signals that questions of risk take priority.
Much of its analysis is devoted to these, along with a large share of the
recommendations. And although the report acknowledges that social
concerns are likely to focus on two questions – ‘Who controls use of
nanotechnologies?’ and ‘Who benefits?’ – little attempt is made to
follow through and answer these, beyond a call for more research.
There is no real sense that these questions are up for serious
negotiation within the terms of reference of the inquiry.
This is perhaps understandable. As a recent paper from Lancaster
University and Demos argues, when faced with new situations
policy-makers generally turn to the tools and frames of reference that
lie close at hand. Just as early policy discussions around GM were
shaped by risk assessment models that were originally developed
within the nuclear industry, so discussions around nanotechnologies
are likely to inherit models that were devised for GM. The way such
patterns repeat themselves highlights the need for a more searching
analysis of the distinctive character and properties of nano-
technologies before regulatory commitments are made. ‘It cannot be
assumed that the conceptualisations and analytical categories
currently available will be able to capture what may prove to be most
See-through Science
32 Demos
distinctive about nanotechnology. In other words, be very careful to
ensure we dont set ourselves up to fight the last war.
In the same way, the visions and ‘imaginaries’ of nanoscientists
need to be brought to the surface and opened up to wider debate.
One doesn’t have to delve far into the scientific and policy literature
around nanotechnology to find enormous claims being made about
its transformative potential. Bottom-up or top-down, the promises of
nanotechnology are revolutionary. For its growing band of
cheerleaders in government, academia and industry, nanotechnology
offers unlimited energy, targeted pharmaceuticals and intelligent
materials. It is increasingly talked about with the same breathless
enthusiasm that surrounded biotechnology and information
technology in the mid-1990s. Take for example the opening
paragraph of a recent parliamentary report:
Nanotechnology is more than an exciting new technology. ...
Over the coming years and decades, nanotechnologies are set to
make an enormous impact on manufacturing and service
industries; on electronics, information technology; and on many
other areas of life, from medicine to energy conservation. ...
Nanotechnology has been described as a new industrial
For most people, nanotechnology is still an unknown quantity. But
swirling around behind the science are many different views of its
social implications and transformative potential. These fall into at
least three categories:
! Nano-radicals see nanotechnology as profoundly disruptive
of economies and societies. In his 1986 book Engines of
Creation,Eric Drexler,the so-called ‘father of nanotechnology,
predicted a world in which nanoscale machines – ‘molecular
assemblers’ – would be capable of arranging atoms to build
Science and the social imagination
Demos 33
almost anything from the bottom up. Because it would take
millions of these assemblers to build anything, Drexler argued
that assemblers would also need to be capable of replicating
themselves,hence his famous – and now disowned – scenario
of self-replicating nanobots smothering the world in grey
! Nano-realists emphasise the incremental innovations and
commercial returns that the technology will provide in
sectors such as manufacturing, IT and healthcare. They aren’t
interested in the hypothetical possibilities of bottom-up
molecular manufacture. Theirs is a venture-capitalised,
research-council approved version of nanotechnology,focused
on practical applications and economic returns. It is this vision
that has excited policy-makers and unleashed a cascade of
government funding across the industrialised world.
! Nano-sceptics count Prince Charles and Michael Crichton
among their number, but their most active and articulate
representatives are the ETC Group, a small Canadian NGO. It’s
not grey goo that worries them so much as the immediate
risks posed by nanoparticles to human health and the
environment. They also have some pretty serious questions
about who is controlling the technology and whose interests
it will ultimately serve.
Such categorisations inevitably simplify a complex range of
perspectives, but they are useful in understanding how public
perceptions of nanotechnology could evolve over time. Crucially,
these underlying visions also inform and shape the direction of
scientific research.
In the United States, a report from the National Science Foundation
paints a vivid picture of the changes that will result from the conver-
gence of nanotechnology with biotechnology, information technology
and cognitive science. This deserves to be quoted at some length:
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34 Demos
Developments in systems approaches, mathematics and
computation . . . allow us for the first time to understand the
natural world, human society, and scientific research as closely
coupled, complex, hierarchical systems. At this moment in the
evolution of technological achievement, improvement of human
performance through integration of technologies becomes
possible. Examples of payoffs may include . . . revolutionary
changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group
creativity . . . brain-to-brain interaction, perfecting human–
machine interfaces...and ameliorating the physical and
cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind. . . . Moving
forward simultaneously along many of these paths could achieve
an age of innovation and prosperity that would be a turning
point in the evolution of human society.
Contained within such projections is a set of assumptions about
future human and social needs that are contestable and should be
debated. The wider public needs to turn its back for a second only,
and the slide from means to ends is underway. The mere possibility
that nanotechnology may enable certain changes to the lives of
individuals, families and communities is seen as sufficient justi-
fication for those changes to go ahead. It is important to understand
how these underlying visions inform and shape the direction of
scientific research. Tacit visions or ‘imaginaries’ of the social role of
nanotech form the basis on which research priorities are negotiated
and planned. This ‘sociology of expectations’ is now attracting wider
interest with the field of science and technology studies.
In 2005, the National Science Foundation, which published this
study of ‘converging technologies and human performance, holds the
purse strings of a budget of $5.7 billion. The democratic deficit in
such processes of framing, prioritisation and resource allocation thus
takes on a more alarming aspect. Who decided that these were the
ends to which technological convergence should be directed? On
what authority, and with what processes of public consultation? Why
were ‘brain-to-brain interaction and ‘human–machine interfaces’
Science and the social imagination
Demos 35
selected as priorities for research? To what extent do these
developments represent ‘techno-fix’ solutions to problems that might
be addressed better in other ways? And in a world where more than
one billion people lack access to safe water and millions die each year
from preventable disease, are these really the best uses we can make of
billions of research dollars?
The GM saga shows what can happen when the underlying social
visions of key players (such as Monsanto) are not made visible and
opened up to public deliberation. The challenge now facing those
involved in nanotechnology research is to approach things differently:
to articulate the visions, promises and expectations of the technology
at an earlier stage, and make them the focal point of upstream public
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36 Demos
3. The rules of
Demos 37
The Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate, famed for its
agricultural shows, is an unlikely setting for an exercise in democracy.
But one afternoon last summer, 250 people gathered there to voice
their hopes and fears about genetically modified crops and foods.
Bruised and weary from its conflicts with the press, public, pressure
groups and scientists, the government decided to confront the issue
head-on and sponsor the GM Nation? debate. This was an innovative
attempt at public engagement, and may come to be seen as marking a
sea change in the government’s approach to science and technology.
In agreeing to a public debate on GM, ministers were implicitly
acknowledging the inadequacies of previous attempts to handle such
issues, and signalling their intention to try a new approach.
It can be hard to get these things right the first time and there
was certainly plenty of criticism of the GM Nation? process. An
independent evaluation uncovered a number of shortcomings,
including inadequate resourcing, a failure to engage members of the
public who had not previously been involved in GM issues, and a lack
of space for genuine deliberation.
But perhaps the biggest flaw of
the GM Nation? process was its timing it took place too late to
influence the direction of GM research, or to alter the institutional
commitments of the biotechnology industry and other key players.
But despite these failings, GM Nation? points the way to a more
sophisticated and deliberative handling of such issues by government.
This chapter reflects on the lessons of GM Nation? to ask what an
ideal upstream engagement process should look like. We want to seize
the gauntlet laid down by the Royal Society’s nanotechnology report:
‘to generate a constructive and proactive debate about the future of
the technology now, before deeply entrenched or polarised positions
We start with the fundamental question of why engagement
is important and what purposes it can serve. We move on to look
briefly at how to engage: what methods can be used to involve people
in decisions? And finally we ask is engagement enough? Can processes
like GM Nation? help us to shape new technologies better, or do we
need to make more fundamental changes to the way that
governments work? In other words, how do deliberative processes fit
within wider trajectories of political or regulatory decision-making?
Why engage the public?
When commissioning GM Nation?, the government was strangely
silent on perhaps the most important question why it decided to
run the process, and what it intended to do with its findings. The
official reason for the debate was that the government’s advisers, the
Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, had asked
for it. But it was never made clear how the findings would be used in
future decisions on GM. Would the government accept the verdict of
the debate and follow its recommendations? Would it support or
oppose the commercialisation of GM crops on the basis of the
evidence received? These issues were not at all clear. As the National
Consumer Council observed at the time, ‘The impression created was
of consultation without inclusion, raising questions about whether
the government genuinely had an open mind.
A clear lesson from GM Nation? is that the objectives of any public
engagement process should be clear from the start. It might simply be
designed to gather information about public opinion – or, at the
other end of the spectrum, to determine a policy decision. In
disentangling the different reasons for public engagement, a useful
distinction can be made between normative, instrumental and
substantive motivations.
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38 Demos
The normative view states that such processes should take place
because they are the right thing to do: dialogue is an important
ingredient of a healthy democracy. The instrumental view holds
that engagement processes are carried out because they serve
particular interests. Companies developing a new technology may
want to find out what people think, so that they can present their
innovation in the best possible light. Governments may want to
engage in order to build trust in science and manage their reputation
for competence.
From a substantive perspective, engagement processes aim to
improve the quality of decision-making, to create more socially-
robust scientific and technological solutions. The goal is to improve
social outcomes in a deeper sense than just improving the reputation
of the technology, company or government involved. From this point
of view, citizens are seen as subjects, not objects, of the process. They
work actively to shape decisions, rather than having their views
canvassed by other actors to inform the decisions that are then taken.
With hindsight, it seems that the motivation behind GM Nation?
was partly normative the government wanted to do the right thing,
as recommended by its advisers. It was definitely instrumental
ministers wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing, in order to
build trust in their handling of the issue, and perhaps to move
towards greater acceptance of the technology. But given that it was
never made clear how the results of the debate would be used, it
seems unlikely that there was any substantive motivation behind the
debate. It was not aimed at making better, more informed decisions
about GM. In this respect, it was too little, too late.
As Andy Stirling points out, substantive approaches are
particularly important when there are ‘intractable scientific and
technological uncertainties . . . as a means to consider broader issues,
questions, conditions causes or possibilities.
Although there is still a
role for normative and instrumental approaches, it is clear from the
GM debate, and from emerging debates about nanotechnology, that
public engagement must be substantive. It must not just inform
decisions – it must shape them.
The rules of engagement
Demos 39
Opening up rather than closing down
Stirling goes on to make a helpful distinction between processes that
aim to open up a debate, and ones that aim to close it down.For
engagement to be meaningful, it needs to open up some of the deeper
questions discussed in chapter 2 to look at who frames the visions
and purposes of a new technology, and to allow the public to ask the
questions that they consider most important.
Stirling reminds us that implicit assumptions lie behind all
engagement processes. Supposedly objective’ reports by experts’ are
actually carefully and subjectively framed according to the outlook of
the experts themselves, and the questions they choose to answer. This
is where the retreat to a risk discourse occurs – with biotechnologists,
for example, choosing to answer the question ‘is it safe?’, rather than
‘is it necessary or desirable?’. Identical framing assumptions apply to
engagement processes. Decisions made about the type of process
used, the participants, the questions asked, the information provided,
and so on can lead to inadvertent bias or deliberate influence.
other words, you can get the results you want if, consciously or
subconsciously, you frame the debate in the right way.
Even engagement processes such as citizens juries or consensus
conferences can be used to close things down, in just the same way as
risk assessment. The worst outcome would be one in which
techniques for engagement are incorporated into the bureaucratic
processes of decision-making without changing the way that
decisions are made. In this case, public engagement’ is no more than
a process box that civil servants and scientists have to tick when
drawing up a policy or applying for funding.
By contrast, practised in a meaningful way, public engagement can
lead to better, more robust policy and funding decisions, provided it
is used to open up questions, provoke debate, expose differences and
interrogate assumptions. From this perspective, it is not up to
‘experts’ to frame a question and slot in an engagement process to
provide the answer. As Brian Wynne has argued, this is simply the
deficit model in a new guise. Instead, the public should help to decide
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40 Demos
the questions and the way in which a particular issue will be
There is a hint of this ‘mark-2’ deficit model in the Royal Society’s
nanotechnology report. The need for engagement processes is flagged
alongside other tasks additional research, risk assessment, life-cycle
analysis, and so on. The Royal Society has written a recipe for the
public consumption of nanotechnologies, in which one of the
ingredients is public involvement – alongside numerous others. A
more substantive model of engagement would hand over authorship
of the recipe to a more plural and diverse set of publics, rather than
reducing the public to just another ingredient in the pot. This more
substantive model of engagement would genuinely open things up in
Stirling’s terms, by uncovering framing assumptions and making
citizens the subjects rather than the objects of the process.
Engagement would then be overarching, rather than bolt-on.
How to engage?
Once the question ‘why engage?’ has been answered, we can then turn
to the secondary question of how to engage?’ what methodologies
allow a proper consideration of public views and values? A great deal
of energy has been expended on this in recent years, but the short
answer is that there is no ideal process, but a menu of different
methods and techniques. From focus groups to referendums, citizens
juries to stakeholder dialogue, there are as many processes for
engagement as there are issues to debate. Our argument here is that
aim should come before method, but it is worth reviewing the
different techniques on offer. The box below shows some – though by
no means all – of the methods available.
Methods of public involvement
Deliberative polling
In a deliberative poll, a large, demographically representative
group of perhaps several hundred people conducts a debate,
The rules of engagement
Demos 41
usually including the opportunity to cross-examine key players.
The group is polled on the issue before and after the debate.
Focus groups
A focus group is a qualitative method used widely in commercial
market research and increasingly in academic social research.
Typically, a group of eight to ten people, broadly representative of
the population being studied, is invited to discuss the issue under
review, usually guided by a trained facilitator working to a
designed protocol. The group is not required to reach any
conclusions, but the contents of the discussion are studied for
what they may reveal about shared understandings, attitudes and
values. Focus groups may also help to identify the factors (which
large-scale surveys rarely do) that shape attitudes and responses,
including trust or mistrust. They also help in the design and
interpretation of quantitative public opinion surveys.
Citizens’ juries
A citizens’ jury (or panel) involves a small group of lay participants
(usually 12–20) receiving, questioning and evaluating presenta-
tions by experts on a particular issue, often over three to four days.
At the end, the group is invited to make recommendations. In the
UK to date, local authorities, government agencies, policy
researchers and consultants have convened over 200 citizens’
juries on a wide range of policy issues.
Consensus conferences
By convention, a group of 16 lay volunteers is selected for a
consensus conference according to socioeconomic and
demographic characteristics. The members meet first in private, to
decide the key questions they wish to raise. There is then a public
phase, lasting perhaps three days, during which the group hears
and interrogates expert witnesses, and draws up a report.The main
differences between a consensus conference and a citizens’ jury or
focus group are the greater opportunity for the participants to
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become more familiar with the technicalities of the subject, the
greater initiative allowed to the panel, the admission of the press
and the public, and the higher cost.
Stakeholder dialogues
This is a generic term applied to processes that bring together
affected and interested parties (stakeholders) to deliberate and
negotiate on a particular issue. Stakeholders can range from
individuals and local residents to employees and representatives
of interest groups.
Internet dialogues
This term is applied to any form of interactive discussion that takes
place through the internet. It may be restricted to selected
participants, or open to anyone with internet access. The
advantages of internet dialogue include the ability to collect many
responses quickly and to analyse them using search engines.
Similarly, they can combine the benefits of rapid exchange of ideas
(brainstorming) with a complete record. On the other hand,
participation may be self-selecting and unrepresentative, and the
anonymity of the internet may encourage impulsive rather than
considered responses. Anonymity may make it difficult to
investigate the provenance of information provided.
Deliberative mapping
This is a process in which expert and citizen assessments are
integrated. In a deliberative mapping exercise, citizens’ panels and
specialist panels are convened and interact with each other,
allowing participants to interrogate each others’ views and
knowledge, and exposing framing assumptions made by both
sides. Deliberative mapping seeks to bring together the views of
‘experts’ and ‘public’, through face-to-face deliberation between
these two groups. The approach was pioneered through a
consortium of research institutes in the UK, and applied to the
specific problem of organ transplant options.
The rules of engagement
Demos 43
The type of process used will, obviously, depend on what is required.
Timing and resource constraints will determine how ambitious or
far-reaching a process can be. But there are other issues to take into
account. Our analysis of normative, instrumental and substantive
motivations gives rise to a number of further questions:
! Deliberative or snapshot? Is the process designed to involve
people in a process of deliberation, whereby information
is processed, and views formed and discussed? Consensus
conferences and citizens juries allow this. Or is the aim
merely to get a snapshot of people’s views, in order to
inform decisions? In this case, a straightforward opinion
poll or focus group may be more appropriate.
! Representative? Different methods will be required if the
aim is to involve a representative sample or a particular
segment of the population. But even smaller, more
deliberative processes can be ‘representative in a less
formal, statistical way, if participants are selected
according to certain criteria – as is routinely the case with
focus groups, for example.
! Hierarchical or non-hierarchical? One important, though
often overlooked, factor is how expert’ knowledge is
treated. In other words, does the method follow the
traditional hierarchy whereby experts decide what
questions need addressing, and what information should
be taken into account? Or does it subvert this, allowing lay
participants to frame questions, gather information and
question evidence? The citizens’ jury is perhaps the best
example of a process in which hierarchies are reversed,
with jury members free to define the question, call
witnesses and seek whatever information they deem
relevant or necessary. Such a model makes it easier to
open up rather than close down debates, along the lines
discussed above.
! Consensual or exploratory? Lastly, it is important to
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consider whether a deliberative process aims to reach a
consensus, or simply to explore views. Some processes,
such as deliberative polling, aim to develop a richer
understanding of views. Consensus conferences and
stakeholder dialogues often aim to bring about consensus,
or even to reach a definitive decision.
Are engagement processes enough?
So far, we have explored questions of why and how to engage. But
true to the spirit of opening up, our answers raise larger questions
about the nature of democracy. Where does public engagement fit in
the set of relationships between citizen and government?
This may seem far removed from the immediate and practical
question of how to handle nanotechnology or GM foods. But as we
saw in the last chapter, the question of how to handle new
technologies is not a technical or procedural question it is a
question of politics. Decisions about the relationship between
technology and society are deeply political. They require forms of
mediation between different interests, values and world views. The
challenge is how to integrate engagement processes into wider
patterns of political decision-making. As Sheila Jasanoff says,
The purpose is to hold science and industry answerable, with the
utmost seriousness, to the fundamental questions of democratic
politics questions that have fallen into disuse through
modernity’s long commitment to treating science as a realm
apart in its ability to cater for society’s needs: Who is making the
choices that govern lives? On whose behalf? According to whose
definitions of the good? With what rights of representation? And
in which forums?
Simply slotting deliberative processes into existing ways of doing
things will not result in any real change. Some of the more naïve
proponents of public engagement seem to assume that the way to
resolve difficult issues is by bringing together the concerned parties,
The rules of engagement
Demos 45
adding a mix of methods and a family pack of post-it notes, and then
allowing the facilitators to save the day. But decisions about the way
that technology and society interact are deeply political, and
engagement processes need some kind of link to the political system.
At the end of the day, decisions have to be made, and elected
politicians usually have to make them.
Towards a deliberative democracy
This takes us to the heart of political theory. Advocates of deliberative
democracy provide important insights into the relationship between
engagement processes and democratic decision-making.
stress, above all, the process by which views are formed. It is often
assumed, particularly by politicians and economists, that an
individual’s political decisions or economic choices are a
manifestation of innate beliefs or preferences. If this is true, then a
simple opinion poll or indeed, a referendum to assess people’s
views is the easiest way to understand public attitudes. Everyone, the
argument goes, will have a view on a particular technology GM for
example – we just need to find out what it is.
By contrast, a deliberative model emphasises that peoples views
are shaped by the way they encounter or engage with an issue. So
people do not have a view on GM unless they are required to have one
which could happen when they read about it in the papers, are
asked to buy GM food in a supermarket, are asked by a pressure
group to oppose it, or are invited to participate in a GM Nation?
meeting in their town hall.
This helps us to understand people’s reactions to technologies. It is
hardly surprising that so many respondents to GM Nation? expressed
unease at the perceived power of the multinational companies which
promote GM technology’.
This is not a criticism of the technology
itself, but of the way it was handled. We begin to see the emergence of
a two-way, shifting dialogue: the formation of technologies on the
one hand, and the formation of views on the other. The mingling of
these two processes is what will ultimately determine the direction of
a technology and society’s reaction to it. An important lesson has
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emerged from this analysis. If it is possible to shape the process of
view formation through deliberation, then it is possible for people’s
views, and the technology they are reflecting on, to be shaped
simultaneously. It is no longer a case of developing a technology and
finding out what people think about it the two can, and should, be
done in parallel.
In the final analysis, the buck for decisions over science and
technology must stop with elected politicians. This is one of the
things that we elect them for. But political decision-making should
not take place in a vacuum. Rather, it should seek out and take
account of diverse forms of social knowledge and intelligence, and
use deliberative processes to better inform its decisions.
A final argument in favour of such an approach is that it could
help reinvigorate a wider enthusiasm for politics. Critics of
engagement processes often point out that political disenagagement is
at an all time high. People are not exactly queuing up to be involved
in debates about technology. Many choose not even to vote at a
general election.
Ironically, though, this rejection of politics could
be resulting from too little, rather than too much, engagement. Too
many people see politics as separate from their everyday lives. If faith
in the institutions of representative democracy is on the wane, now is
the right time to start experimenting with new forms of democratic
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4. Open innovation
48 Demos
A few months ago, the RSAs Forum for Technology, Citizens and the
Market published some research that makes sober reading for
supporters of public engagement in science. Based on interviews with
managers in 12 innovation-based companies, it found low levels of
awareness of the need for public engagement and even lower levels of
action. When attempts are made to have a dialogue with the public
about new innovations they tend to occur long after the key business
decisions have been taken. The deficit model is alive and well, with
several companies equating engagement with PR-led communication.
As one manager put it, ‘. . .We tend not to publicise too much about
what we do until we’re actually 101% sure. You could perhaps accuse
us of being slightly risk averse.
Such findings represent a serious challenge to our argument.
Moving public engagement upstream is hard enough in the context of
taxpayer-funded and publicly-accountable science. How can it
possibly work in the private sector? Several obstacles stand in the way:
the profit motive; pressures for commercial confidentiality; and tight
frameworks of patent and intellectual property law.
But there are two reasons why more public engagement in
corporate science is needed. First, this is where the lions share of
R&D takes place. In the UK, the private sector research budget is
almost double that of the public sector, and the Treasury is relying on
business to match it every step of the way as it ratchets up science
spending over the next decade.
Second, corporate science, and the
perceived conflicts of interest at play within it, are the focus of
genuine public concern. This is one of the most striking conclusions
to emerge from research into public attitudes towards GM.
Ye t this message is not being heard. The sector where public
engagement is most urgently required is barely engaged with this
agenda. The ‘new mood for dialogue’ around science and technology
that the House of Lords identified in 2000 does not appear to have
spread to Britains boardrooms or corporate R&D facilities.
There are honourable exceptions. For example, BT has consistently
promoted public discussion of the social, ethical and environmental
dimensions of digital technologies.
And in the formative stages of
the GM debate, Unilever participated in dialogue processes and
funded much-needed social research.
But a surprising number of
science and innovation-led companies remain an engagement-free
zone. The emerging debate around nanotechnologies is a case in
point: so far, no UK company has shown leadership on this issue, or
attempted to contribute to a wider public debate.
Are there any insights into this problem that we can draw from
government innovation policy? In the UK’s new ten-year strategy for
science, there is little effort to link innovation and public engagement
in anything other than defensive terms. Public disquiet must be taken
seriously, but only in so far as it threatens the smooth passage of new
technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace. The language of
upstream engagement’ is there, but to employ the distinction of the
previous chapter, the motivations for doing it are instrumental rather
than substantive.
Within the ten-year strategy, as Tom Macmillan has argued, the
potential links between theories of innovation and arguments for
engagement are not fully realised. Engagement is seen as an add-on
to processes of knowledge creation, rather than an integral part of
them, and there is little recognition that non-scientific forms of
public knowledge can add new forms of economic and social value to
As a result, the chapter in the strategy on ‘science and
society’ feels disconnected from many of the initiatives outlined in the
rest of the document.
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Demos 49
To give one example, there are several references to the
development of a new ‘Technology Strategy’ which will be steered by
a board comprising mainly senior business leaders’ and ‘expertly
informed through engagement with stakeholders in the science base
and business to provide clear and transparent guidance to
Government in setting funding priorities.
If the new commitment
to upstream public engagement is at all meaningful, then surely the
creation of this board is one of the first places to start? Yet the
implication is that this new strategic body with the responsibility
for allocating up to £178 million of public money will be narrowly
constituted from business and other expert interests, with little or no
space for meaningful public engagement.
Learning from Finland
If policy cannot provide a clear rationale for upstream public
engagement, what else can progressive companies draw on to build a
business case? One option is to draw on recent developments in
management theory that explore a shift to more open models of
Such work suggests that companies should combine
external and internal forms of knowledge into new architectures and
systems. Charles Leadbeater suggests that open innovation flows from
three kinds of social interaction:
1. being good at seeking out or attracting diverse ideas,
which clash, collide and spark with one another;
2. being good at absorbing these different insights and
combining them with your own knowledge and expertise,
to create a new product, service or technology; and
3. excelling at innovating in use, with active consumers who
increasingly want a say in how products and services are
It is not only companies that can adopt these new patterns of open
innovation. Countries can do it too. Leadbeater gives the example of
Finland, which despite its size has become one of the most
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technologically advanced societies in the world. Most of its GDP is
derived from electronics, computing and telecoms, and it has given
rise to two of the biggest challengers to US corporate dominance:
Nokia and Linux. The best way to understand what has made Finland
so successful is to see it as an open innovator. Because it is a small
country with few resources, it has always had to borrow ideas from
abroad. It also has a strong culture of citizen-led innovation: the open
source ‘hacker ethic’ that underpins the growth of Linux.
It doesn’t require much imagination to see how such ideas could
be applied to public engagement in science. Companies that are
serious about open innovation will have a strong motivation to
include public participation in their upstream R&D, in order to
benefit from the different values, perspectives and forms of social
intelligence that this could bring. The wider uptake of open
innovation models offers one route to re-energising business efforts
at public engagement.
Corporate social innovation
Another area with promise is the growing body of theory and practice
around corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. As
with government, the case for public engagement can be made here in
different ways. From an instrumental perspective, conjuring up the
example of Monsanto is usually enough to make the point that the
failure to participate openly in, or the intention to subvert, processes
of public debate around new technologies can have disastrous
consequences for the profitability and even survival of a firm.
From a substantive perspective, the more interesting question is
how public engagement can help companies to create new forms of
social value. As Demos has argued elsewhere, the next phase of the
CSR debate will need to be based around stronger alliances with the
innovation agenda.
While CSR has made great inroads in many
businesses, it is still held back by two factors:
! Marginalisation – Far too often, CSR and sustainability
activities are bolted on to the communications and public
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Demos 51
affairs departments, and remain removed from the
strategic and R&D functions of the business.
! Bureaucratisation – The audit-based, box-ticking culture
of reports, league tables, and standards are such a
dominant focus of many companies’ CSR and
sustainability efforts that they are in danger of stifling
wider forms of social innovation and creativity.
We need to find ways of connecting sustainability and CSR to the core
innovative capabilities of an organisation the R&D, product
development and strategy functions that represent the greatest
sources of business value. If the knowledge and capabilities of these
parts of any business could be applied to social as well as economic
– dimensions of innovation, then the CSR agenda might start to have
a real impact. In addition, marketing departments have to be
incredibly well attuned to public attitudes. How can they channel
some of this knowledge and ongoing engagement with the public
towards more open and fundamental questions about science,
technology and innovation?
Can we be too precautionary?
Critics might argue that upstream public engagement brings with it
the danger of being too cautious. If R&D processes are opened up to
too much public scrutiny, will innovation be stifled, preventing the
emergence of new technologies? Should companies be left free to
innovate in order to achieve much-needed technological break-
Where you stand in this debate depends on your views of the
‘precautionary principle’ a widely used, and even more widely
misinterpreted, concept that forms the cornerstone of European
environmental and health policy. The most commonly-used
definition of the precautionary principle is the one agreed at the 1992
Rio Earth Summit: ‘where there are threats of serious or irreversible
damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason
for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental
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In other words, the fact that there is scientific
uncertainty should not be used as an excuse to do nothing. Though
this principle is widely quoted, there is little consensus about what it
means in practice, and even less agreement about how strictly it
should be applied.
The organisation Spiked! recently conducted a survey of scientists,
asking them which historic scientific achievements would have been
thwarted by applying the precautionary principle. The answers,
ranging from vaccinations and the contraceptive pill through to the
internet and iron, made a powerful case for the pitfalls of
However, the opposite question also needs to be asked –
what tragedies could have been prevented through early and effective
use of the precautionary principle? A study by the European
Environment Agency points to a range of problems, from collapsing
fish stocks to asbestosis, which could have been prevented if a
precautionary approach had been taken. The hazards of working with
asbestos were first documented as early as 1898, yet it took another
hundred years – and millions of deaths before it was finally banned
in the EU. Between 1898 and 1998, evidence gradually accumulated of
the harmful effects of asbestos, yet regulators were slow to respond. A
more precautionary approach would, in this instance, have saved
Faced with these different viewpoints, it can seem hard to decide
whether we invoke the precautionary principle too often, or too
rarely. It is tempting to see this as a question of what balance to strike
between precaution and innovation to what extent scientists and
companies should be free to experiment, or when and how to rein
them in. But the trade-off between precaution and innovation may
not be this straightforward. There are a couple of reasons why a more
precautionary approach may actually stimulate, rather than stifle,
First, evidence suggests that carefully-designed regulation can
promote innovation by encouraging leading companies to try
different approaches. The European Environment Agency uses the
example of asbestos: ‘tighter regulation of asbestos would have raised
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its market price . . . thereby stimulating the innovation that belatedly
led to better and often cheaper substitutes, as well as to improved
engine and building designs that generate, at source, less waste heat.
Similarly, Japanese manufacturers of fuel-efficient cars and German
packaging companies have both benefited from tight regulations
which provided a domestic market and, subsequently, export
opportunities when standards in other countries caught up.
Second, a precautionary approach that engages the public may
provide a way of anticipating potential problems before products
reach the marketplace. Take GM foods as an example. Here, the new
technology was not properly introduced to the public until products
hit the supermarket shelves at which point, the backlash began. A
more precautionary approach would have allowed companies to
understand and incorporate views and values, preventing a boom-
and-bust cycle of innovation.
The precautionary principle will only stimulate innovation in this
way if it is used wisely. It should not be crudely interpreted along the
lines of ‘if it can’t be proved safe, it shouldn’t be allowed’. And it
should not mean taking the least risk option in all cases. NGOs are
often too quick to invoke the precautionary principle to justify a ban,
which can be unhelpful. It is better that we see precaution, and the
public’s involvement in framing and interpreting it, as just one more
process through which complex decisions can be made a process
which may help to bring us a few steps closer to see-through science.
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5. See-through science
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I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is
increasingly being split into two polar groups one pole we
have the literary intellectuals ... at the other scientists. ...
Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension sometimes
(particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of
all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of
each other.
CP Snow
If he had lived to meet him, one wonders what CP Snow would make
of Rob Doubleday. Snow, who achieved success as both a scientist and
a novelist, is best remembered for his 1959 lecture The Two Cultures,
in which he lamented the breakdown in communication between the
sciences and the humanities. Doubleday, on the other hand, is a social
scientist who recently took a job in the nanoscience laboratory at
Cambridge University, providing real-time reflection on the social
and ethical aspects of its research. ‘My role’, explains Doubleday, ‘is to
help imagine what the social dimensions might be, even though the
eventual applications of the science aren’t yet clear. Communication
is a big part of his work: ‘A lot of what I do is translate and facilitate
conversations between nanoscientists and social scientists, but also
with NGOs and civil society.
This is a different sort of experiment to the experiments in
democracy that we discussed in chapter 3. But it is no less important.
Taking public engagement upstream requires us to be creative in the
mix of formal and informal methods that are used to democratise
science and infuse it with new forms of public knowledge.
Ta ken to its logical conclusions, our argument in this pamphlet has
profound implications for the future of science. At its most
ambitious, can upstream engagement reshape not only the way that
science relates to public decision-making, but also the very
foundations of knowledge on which the scientific enterprise rests?
Five years on from the House of Lords report, this is the question that
the science and society agenda now needs to address.
Running through our analysis is the proposition that different
types of intelligence need to viewed alongside one another, rather
than in a hierarchy which places science above the public. Why?
Because this will lead to better science. Better in instrumental terms,
because if scientists engage as equals in a dialogue with the public at
an early stage, the likelihood of clashes further downstream is
reduced. But also better in substantive terms: science that embraces
these plural and diverse forms of knowledge will be more socially-
robust science. As Helga Nowotny puts it, ‘Science can and will
become enriched by taking in the social knowledge it needs in order
to continue its stupendous efficiency in enlarging our understanding
of the world.
Paddling upstream
As we have seen, the science community has travelled a long way in a
short time. In less than 20 years, the style of its conversation with
society has changed from the patronising tones of ‘public
understanding’ to the warmer banter of dialogue. Now it is changing
again, to a more honest and reflective mode of listening and
Welcome to see-through science.
Will the rhetorical commitments to upstream engagement made
by the government and the Royal Society be backed up by meaningful
actions? It is still too early to say. The doubling of the budget for
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science and society activities in the new ten-year strategy is certainly
welcome, and will help to resource new efforts and alliances.
money alone cannot bring about the transformation we have
described. This agenda requires many organisations and individuals
to commit to institutional and cultural change. So as we head
upstream, what are the landmarks along the way? Where are the sites
for action and intervention?
Science policy
The priority for government is to deliver on the commitment to
upstream public engagement contained in the ten-year science
strategy. The practical and institutional mechanisms for this need to
be worked through, and a strategic framework put in place. As the
Royal Society report suggests, nanotechnologies are an obvious focal
point for experimenting with new methods and approaches. We
outline below what a Nano Nation? process might look like, drawing
on our earlier discussion of the criteria for successful engagement.
Another eye-catching recommendation in the Royal Society report
is for the chief scientific adviser to establish a group that brings
together representatives of a wide range of stakeholders to look at
new and emerging technologies and identify at the earliest possible
stage areas where potential health, safety, environmental, social,
ethical and regulatory issues may arise and advise on how these might
be addressed.
This is an excellent proposal which we would
support, perhaps with the small addition that any such group should
include lay members as well as representatives of interest groups.
Nano Nation?
Drawing on the lessons from GM Nation?,how should a public
debate on nanotechnologies be run?
1. Clarity about outcomes
The government should be transparent from the start about how
the outcomes of Nano Nation? would be used in its decision-
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making process. One of the main shortcomings of GM Nation? was
that this was never clear. It is not a case of just agreeing to abide by
the outcomes of the debate rather, the government and other
participating institutions need to explain up front how they intend
to use the process to improve their ‘social intelligence about
nanotechnologies, in order to reach decisions that take account of
public views and values.
2. Genuine deliberation
Nano Nation? should be a deliberative process. It should allow
people to form and revise their views in discussion with others.This
means that a range of methods and activities will be required:
! public engagement techniques, including deliberative
mapping and citizens’ juries, which allow experts and the
public to exchange views;
! targeted processes for particular groups, including scientists,
social scientists, economists, environment and development
! links to wider civil society, for example by encouraging
newspapers to involve their readers in the debate, or asking
companies with an interest in nanotechnology to involve
their consumers;
! links to the political process, by asking MPs to debate with
constituents, allowing time for debate in Parliament, and
ensuring that all ministers (and not just the science minister)
discuss the issue;
! a sufficient time period to enable learning and reflection to
take place across all of these different activities. Another
criticism of GM Nation? was that it was conducted in isolation
from other elements of the GM policy process.
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3. Debate informing research
Nano Nation? should set the agenda for further research on the
social, ethical and environmental dimensions of nanotechnology.
The debate process should be used to inform research priorities,
rather than government, scientists or other experts deciding what
questions should be answered. The Royal Society has made clear
what further research it believes is necessary – but this may be
different from public concerns. In particular, it is important that the
process is not unevenly tilted towards narrow framings of risk if
these do not accurately reflect public concerns. This is not to say
that public views should be privileged over expert views rather,
that the input of expert and public knowledge should inform the
way the debate proceeds.
4. Virtuous learning circles
Once Nano Nation? has taken place, its results must be revisited as
developments across different nanotechnologies gather pace.
Smaller, reconvened dialogues involving people engaged in the
original debate could be used to revisit issues and help frame
future research. When new regulations for nanotechnologies are
drawn up, it should be clear how these have taken account of the
public debate.
5. From local and national to European and beyond
The findings of Nano Nation? should inform the UK’s stance in EU
and international debates.The UK would then be able to stress that
its position on nanotechnologies is thoroughly grounded in public
views. This is important in international forums, such as the World
Trade Organization, which currently place far more emphasis on
scientific evidence. The UK should also argue for deliberative
processes to be embedded in international regulations and
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Research councils
The research councils have a potentially decisive role in determining
whether upstream public engagement becomes a meaningful reality.
Across the councils, there have been encouraging moves to involve the
public and other stakeholders in recent years, through the use of
advisory panels and consultation exercises. Yet progress across the
different councils is patchy. Some, such as BBSRC and the Medical
Research Council, are making significant progress. Others appear to
be lagging behind. The reform of research council structures now
needs to move up a gear. Academic scientists and industrialists still
monopolise the top layers of governance within the councils the
boards and central committees that set overall funding priorities and
strategic direction. These need to be opened up to more diverse forms
of social expertise and public knowledge.
Similar reforms are needed at intermediary levels within the
councils, such as the selection and framing of research programmes
and thematic priorities. While it may not be practical to have lay
members on every single funding panel, neither is it acceptable to rule
out wider public scrutiny of funding decisions on the basis that they
are too technical. More urgency needs to be applied to the task of
identifying what models of engagement and participation are most
appropriate in particular contexts.
Related to this are questions of how funds are allocated. For
example, in the US, research into the ‘societal and educational
implications’ of nanotechnology are built into all funding
programmes at the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
Around 4 per cent of their 2003 budget was allocated to these
The councils should explore the allocation of research
funds in key areas to upstream public engagement and other forms of
social evaluation. Careful consideration would need to be given to
how this money was best spent some might be directed towards
interdisciplinary partnerships between natural/physical scientists and
social scientists.
A related suggestion made by the biologist Rupert Sheldrake is for
See-through Science
60 Demos
a ‘1 per cent fund’ a small percentage of the overall science budget
that could be spent in carrying out research in areas that the public
feel are important or neglected by other funding.
methodologies could be used to determine areas of popular choice.
The practice of science
Rob Doubleday’s work in the Cambridge nanoscience lab highlights
another area where different forms of intelligence and public
knowledge can be integrated into the everyday processes of doing
science. Other labs should explore whether they can follow the
Cambridge example by appointing social scientists to carry out what
Dave Guston and Dan Sarewitz call ‘real-time technology assess-
No one is suggesting that we invite members of the public to stand
over the shoulder of scientists while they work in the laboratory, but
it is important to identify ways in which processes of engagement can
strengthen the reflective capacity of scientists. In part, this is about
‘bringing out the public’ in the scientist – scientists are parents,
children and citizens like everyone else, and are of course quite
capable of reflecting on social and ethical questions. However, they
may also benefit from occasional contact with non-expert and lay
perspectives on the broader social implications of their work. A
change is required in the scientific mindset, away from assumptions
that experimentation begins and ends in the laboratory, and towards
a recognition that experimentation continues as scientific and
technological knowledge diffuses into complex social systems.
New partnerships
We close with recommendations aimed at three sectors that will have
important contributions to make to a culture of see-through science:
In line with our discussion in chapter 4, R&D-based companies
should open up their innovation processes at the earliest possible
stage, to ensure that a broader set of social insights are brought to
See-through science
Demos 61
bear on developments. Particular resources for this process may be
found in management theories of open innovation and in processes
for corporate sustainability and CSR.
NGOs often taken a strong campaigning stance against particular
technologies, for example Greenpeaces fight against GM, or the ETC
Groups campaigns on nanotechnology. In a world of upstream
engagement, NGOs will, themselves, need to move upstream, by
talking to scientists, businesses and policy-makers at an early stage,
and making their views and concerns clear from the start. The subtle
and intelligent stance that Greenpeace has adopted towards
nanotechnology perhaps offers a model that others could follow.
The media
Journalists are often caricatured by the science community as the
source of public misinformation and concern. Reports on science and
society often end with a call for more science or science specialists in
the media to improve the public understanding of science. We have
no intention of doing likewise. As Ian Hargreaves and colleagues
point out ‘a “science for sciences sake” approach seems the one least
likely to generate public engagement’. Instead, the idea of the public
interest is central to engaging the public in science stories. ‘We need to
ask what it is important for citizens to know about science in a
democracy. . . . What matters here, we would suggest, is not so much
the science itself, but establishing clear connections between science,
policy and the broader public interest.
See-through Science
62 Demos
Demos 63
1S Hilgartner, Science on Stage: expert advice as public drama (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2000), p 6.
2The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, Nanoscience and
Nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties (London: The Royal Society,
July 2004).
3The Royal Society, Risk: analysis, perception and management (London: The
Royal Society, 1992).
4Telephone interview, 2 August 2004.
5B Page, ‘Public attitudes to science’, Renewal 12, no 2 (London: Lawrence &
Wishart, 2004).
6S Jasanoff, Designs on Nature (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).
7B Wynne, ‘The public understanding of science’ in S Jasanoff, GE Markle, JC
Peterson and T Pinch (eds), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), pp 361–88.
8The Royal Society, The Public Understanding of Science (London: The Royal
Society, 1985).
9House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Science and
Society (London: House of Lords, 23 February 2000).
10 Ibid, paragraph 3.9. This quote comes from Sir (now Lord) Robert May’s
evidence to the committee.
11 Ibid, paragraph 5.1.
12 See, for example, L Wolpert, ‘Expertise required’, Times Higher Education
Supplement, 19 Dec 2003; D Taverne, ‘How science can save the world’s poor’,
Guardian,3 Mar 2004.
13 R Willis and J Wilsdon, ‘Technology, risk and the environment’ in A Giddens
(ed.), The Progressive Manifesto (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).
14 The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, Nanoscience and
Nanotechnologies,p 64.
15 Ibid, p xi.
16 DTI, ‘Nanotechnology offers potential to bring jobs, investment and prosperity
– Lord Sainsbury’, Department of Trade and Industry, press release, 29 July
17 HM Treasury/DTI/DfES, Science and Innovation Investment Framework
2004–2014 (London: HM Treasury, July 2004), p 105.
18 For example, see Ibid, p 105.
19 Jasanoff, Designs on Nature.
20 HM Treasury/DTI/DfES, Science and Innovation Investment Framework
2004–2014,p 1.
21 T Blair, Science Matters,speech to the Royal Society, 23 May 2002.
22 A Stirling, ‘Opening Up or Closing Down? Analysis, participation and power in
the social appraisal of technology’ in M Leach, I Scoones and B Wynne (eds),
Science, Citizenship and Globalization (London: Zed Books, forthcoming).
23 Jasanoff, Designs on Nature.
24 DH Guston and D Sarewitz, ‘Real-time technology assessment’, Technology in
Society 24 no 1 (2002): 93–109.
25 A Rip, T Misa and J Schot (eds), Managing Technology in Society: the approach
of constructive technology assessment (London: Thomson, 1995).
26 J Durant, An experiment in democracy’ in S Joss and J Durant (eds), Public
Participation in Science: the role of consensus conferences in Europe (London:
Science Museum, 1995).
27 Conversation with Robin Grove-White, 21 May 2004.
28 Following Sheila Jasanoffs work on the centrality of political culture in
shaping public and policy responses to developments in science and
technology, we are cautious about claiming that these arguments can easily be
applied outside of the UK without greater adaptation to local contexts.
29 Remarks at a NATO press briefing, Brussels, 6 August 2002.
30 J Ezard, ‘Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns take prize’, Guardian,2 Dec 2003.
31 For example, R Grove-White, P Macnaghten and B Wynne, Wising Up: the
public and new technologies (Lancaster: CSEC/IEPPP, 2000); C Marris, B
Wynne, P Simmons and S Weldon, Public Perceptions of Agricultural
Biotechnologies in Europe (May 2002); available at:; GM Nation? Public Debate Steering
Board, GM Nation? The findings of the public debate,available at:
32 Grove-White, Macnaghten and Wynne, Wising Up,p 29.
33 M Power, The Risk Management of Everything: rethinking the politics of
uncertainty (London: Demos, 2004).
34 Ibid, p 11.
35 Strategy Unit, Risk: improving government’s capability to handle risk and
uncertainty (London: Cabinet Office, November 2002).
36 U Beck, Risk Society: towards a new modernity (London: Sage, 1992).
37 B Wynne, ‘Risk as globalizing “democratic” discourse? Framing subjects and
citizens’ in M Leach, I Scoones and B Wynne (eds), Science, Citizenship and
Globalization (London: Zed Books, forthcoming).
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64 Demos
38 Ibid.
39 For a good overview of this work, see J Petts, J Homan and S Pollard,
Participatory Risk Assessment: involving lay audiences in environmental decisions
on risk; R&D Technical Report E2-043/TR/01 (Bristol: Environment Agency,
40 Z Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
41 Jasanoff, Designs on Nature.
42 Wynne, ‘Risk as globalizing “democratic” discourse? Framing subjects and
43 B Cooke and U Kothari (eds), Participation: the new tyranny? (London: Zed
Books, 2001).
44 Wynne, ‘Risk as globalizing “democratic” discourse? Framing subjects and
45 M Midgley, Science as Salvation: a modern myth and its meaning (London:
Routledge, 1992), p 15.
46 SustainAbility, Who Needs It? Market implications of sustainable lifestyles
(London: SustainAbility, 1995).
47 C Leadbeater, Mind over Matter: greening the new economy (London: Green
Alliance, 2000).
48 V Vaitheeswaran, Power to the People: how the coming energy revolution will
transform an industry, change our lives, and maybe even save the planet (New
Yo rk:Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p 25.
49 For more on this point, see Green Alliance’s Energy Entrepreneurs project,
available at:
50 EF Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (London: Vintage, 1973), p 128.
51 Ibid, p 127.
52 The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering,