Issue 4 - Summer/Fall 1996

Town Meetings on Technology: Denmark's Experience with the Consensus Conference (page 1 of 2)
By Richard Sclove Technology Review

In a democracy, it normally goes without saying that policy decisions affecting all citizens should be made democratically. Science and technology policies loom as grand exceptions to this rule. They certainly affect all citizens profoundly: the world is continuously remade with advances in telecommunications, computers, materials science, weaponry, biotechnology, home appliances, energy production, air and ground transportation, and environmental and medical understanding. Yet policies are customarily framed by representatives of just three groups: business, the military, and universities. These are the groups invited to testify at congressional hearings, serve on government advisory panels, and prepare influential policy studies.

According to conventional wisdom, the reason for this state of affairs is that nonexperts are ill-equipped to comment on complex technical matters and probably wouldn't want to anyway. But the success of an innovative European process dubbed the consensus conference has begun to shed new light on the subject. Pioneered during the late 1980s by the Danish Board of Technology, a parliamentary agency charged with assessing technologies, the process is intended to stimulate broad and intelligent social debate on technological issues. Not only are laypeople elevated to positions of preeminence, but a carefully planned program of reading and discussion culminating in a forum open to the public ensures that they become well-informed prior to rendering judgment. Both the forum and the subsequent judgment, written up in a formal report, become a focus of intense national attention--usually at a time when the issue at hand is due to come before Parliament. Though consensus conferences are hardly mea public policy, they do give legislators some sense of where the people who elected them might stand on important questions. They can also help industry steer clear of new products or processes that are likely to spark public opposition.

Since 1987 the Board of Technology has organized 12 consensus conferences on topics ranging from genetic engineering to educational technology, food irradiation, air pollution, human infertility, sustainable agriculture, and the future of private automobiles. And the board's achievements have recently led to new incarnations of the Danish process--twice in the Netherlands and once in the United Kingdom. Other European nations, as well as the European Union, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, are actively considering consensus conferences as well.

Ironically, the process is gaining popularity just as the U.S. Congress has abolished its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), whose establishment in 1972 helped motivate Europeans to develop their own technology assessment agencies. But the truth is that when the OTA faced the chopping block, those rallying to its defense were primarily a small cadre of professional policy analysts or other experts who had themselves participated in OTA studies--hardly a sizable cross-section of the American public. By contrast, a consensus conference format, which engages a much wider range of people, holds the potential to build a broader constituency familiar with and supportive of technology assessment. And there is no reason why the United States could not adapt the process.

Framing the Issues

To organize a consensus conference, the Danish Board of Technology first selects a salient topic--one that is of social concern, pertinent to upcoming parliamentary deliberations, and complex, requiring judgment on such diverse matters as ethics, disputed scientific claims, and government policy. The board has also found that topics suited to the consensus conference format should be intermediate in scope--broader than assessing the toxicity of a single chemical, for instance, but narrower than trying to formulate a comprehensive national environmental strategy. The board then chooses a well-balanced steering committee to oversee the organization of the conference; a typical committee might include an academic scientist, an industry researcher, a trade unionist, a representative of a public interest group, and a project manager from the board's own professional staff.

With the topic in hand and the steering committee on deck, the board advertises in local newspapers throughout Denmark for volunteer lay participants. Candidates must send in a one-page letter describing their backgrounds and their reasons for wanting to participate. From the 100 to 200 replies that it receives, the board chooses a panel of about 15 people who roughly represent the demographic breadth of the Danish population and who lack significant prior knowledge of, or specific interest in, the topic. Groups include homemakers, office and factory workers, and garbage collectors as well as university-educated professionals. They are not, however, intended to comprise a random scientific sample of the Danish population. After all, each panelist is literate and motivated enough to have responded in writing to a newspaper advertisement.

At the outset of a first preparatory weekend meeting, the lay group, with the help of a skilled facilitator, discusses an expert background paper commissioned by the board and screened by the steering committee that maps the political terrain surrounding the chosen topic. The lay group next begins formulating questions to be addressed during the public forum. Based on the lay panel's questions, the board goes on to assemble an expert panel that includes not only credentialed scientific and technical experts but also experts in ethics or social science and knowledgeable representatives of stakeholder groups such as trade unions, industry, and environmental organizations.

The lay group then meets for a second preparatory weekend, during which members, again with the facilitator's help, discuss more background readings provided by the steering committee, refine their questions, and, if they want, suggest additions to or deletions from the expert panel. Afterward, the board finalizes selection of the expert panel and asks its members to prepare succinct oral and written responses to the lay group's questions, expressing themselves in language that laypeople will understand.

The concluding public forum, normally a four-day event chaired by the facilitator who presided over the preparatory weekends, brings the lay and expert panels together and draws the media, members of Parliament, and interested Danish citizens. On the first day each expert speaks for 20 to 30 minutes and then addresses follow-on questions from the lay panel and, if time allows, the audience. Afterward, the lay group retires to discuss what it has heard. On the second day the lay group publicly cross-examines the expert panel in order to fill in gaps and probe further into areas of disagreement.

Once cross-examination has been completed, the experts are politely dismissed. The remainder of that day and on through the third, the lay group prepares its report, summarizing the issues on which it could reach consensus and identifying any remaining points of disagreement. The board provides secretarial and editing assistance, but the lay panel retains full control over the report's content. On the fourth and final day, the expert group has a brief opportunity to correct outright factual misstatements in the report, but not to comment on the document's substance. Directly afterward, the lay group presents its report at a national press conference.

Lay panel reports are typically 15 to 30 pages long, clearly reasoned, and nuanced in judgment. The report from the 1992 Danish conference on genetically engineered animals is a case in point, showing a perspective that is neither pro- nor anti-technology in any general sense. The panel expressed concern that patenting animals could deepen the risk of their being treated purely as objects. Members also feared that objectification of animals could be a step down a slippery slope toward objectification of people. Regarding the possible ecological consequences of releasing genetically altered animals into the wild, they noted that such animals could dominate or out-compete wild species or transfer unwanted characteristics to them. On the other hand, the group saw no appreciable ecological hazard in releasing genetically engineered cows or other large domestic animals into fenced fields, and endorsed deep-freezing animal sperm cells and eggs to help preserve biodiversity.

Portions of lay panel reports can be incisive and impassioned as well, especially in comparison with the circumspection and dry language that is conventional in expert policy analyses. Having noted that the "idea of genetic normalcy, once far-fetched, is drawing close with the development of a full genetic map," a 1988 OTA study of human genome research concluded blandly that "concepts of what is normal will always be influenced by cultural variations"; in contrast, a 1989 Danish consensus panel on the same subject recalled the "frightening" eugenic programs of the 1930s and worried that "the possibility of diagnosing fetuses earlier and earlier in pregnancy in order to find genetic defects' creates the risk of an unacceptable perception of man--a perception according to which we aspire to be perfect." The lay group went on to appeal for further popular debate on the concept of normalcy. Fearing that parents might one day seek abortions upon learning was, say, color blind or left-handed, 14 of the panel's 15 members also requested legislation that would make fetal screening for such conditions illegal under most circumstances.

This central concern with social issues becomes much more likely when expert testimony is integrated with everyday citizen perspectives. For instance, while the executive summary of the OTA study on human genome research states that "the core issue" is how to divide up resources so that genome research is balanced against other kinds of biomedical and biological research, the Danish consensus conference report, prepared by people whose lives are not intimately bound up in the funding dramas of university and national laboratories, opens with a succinct statement of social concerns, ethical judgments, and political recommendations. And these perspectives are integrated into virtually every succeeding page, whereas the OTA study discusses ethics only in a single discrete chapter on the subject. The Danish consensus conference report concludes with a call for more school instruction in "subjects such as biology, religion, philosophy, and social science"; better popular dis "immediately understandable" information about genetics; and vigorous government efforts to promote the broadest possible popular discussion of "technological and ethical issues." The corresponding OTA study does not even consider such ideas.

When the Danish lay group did address the matter of how to divide up resources, they differed significantly from the OTA investigators. Rather than focusing solely on balancing different kinds of biomedical and biological research against one another, they supported basic research in genetics but also called for more research on the interplay between environmental factors and genetic inheritance, and more research on the social consequences of science. They challenged the quest for exotic technical fixes for disease and social problems, pointing out that many proven measures for protecting health and bettering social conditions and work environments are not being applied. Finally, they recommended a more "humanistic and interdisciplinary" national research portfolio that would stimulate a constructive exchange of ideas about research repercussions and permit "the soul to come along." More >>


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