Science Consensus Conference: Taking tomatoes seriously: Science meets the public in a unique venture, starting this weekend. John Durant explains

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The Independent Online
THIS weekend, 16 men and women will gather in Oxford to learn about plant biotechnology - the field that is beginning to produce new pesticides, new crops and new fruits and vegetables, such as the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato that was approved for sale in the United States a few weeks ago. They are volunteers who have been selected to make up the lay panel of Britain's first 'consensus conference', an experiment in democracy that, after two preparatory sessions, will culminate in a public conference to be held in London on 2-4 November.

It is a central paradox of our age that the ideal of democracy is universally acclaimed at the same time that the institutions of democracy are generally reviled. Public distrust of democratic institutions has many sources, including the obvious imperfections of many of the people who work in them; but even supposing that by some miracle all politicians were to be made perfect, big problems would remain.

Part of the difficulty is the sheer crudity of our system of representative democracy. General elections give people a clear opportunity to influence the colour of national government, but between elections it is hard enough even for backbench MPs to get their voices heard; and for the rest of us, involvement in the decision-making process may amount to little more than tuning in to the bun-fight of prime minister's question time.

More often than not, the enormous gap between political decision-making and ordinary people is filled by nothing more substantial than that secular deity of the modern democratic state, 'public opinion'. By being sensitive to 'public opinion', decision-makers supposedly demonstrate their responsiveness to the will of the people without the inconvenience of having to consult anybody in particular.

Keeping the public at bay may be attractive to decision-makers, but it is of doubtful benefit to democracy. Public opinion polls can be an unreliable guide even to something as apparently straightforward as people's voting intentions; and they are extremely ill- suited to teasing out people's views on more detailed questions of public policy. When it comes to technically complex issues such as, say, global warming or the treatment of infertility, it is doubtful whether instant answers given to pollsters on street-corners are of any real use at all.

Today, the hunt is on for new ways of closing the gap between the political process and the general public. Earlier this year, this newspaper collaborated with Channel 4 under the auspices of Professor James Fishkin in conducting Britain's first ever 'deliberative opinion poll'. Three hundred people spent a weekend in a television studio in Manchester, discussing crime and punishment with invited experts and politicians. The idea was to see what people thought about crime when they had a chance to learn and think about it for themselves. As reported in the Independent, it seems that people's views did indeed change in some respects as they became better acquainted with the issues.

Consensus conferences are another novel instrument of democracy. A Danish invention, the basic idea is to give lay people a voice in the assessment of new technologies. A subject is chosen; a panel of lay people is appointed; the panel is taught enough to know what questions to ask; and thereafter it conducts its own investigation of the subject by cross-examining experts (scientists, industrialists, policy-makers, consumer representatives or anybody else who may have something useful to say). Finally, the panel publishes a report of its considered views, which can then be put to opinion-formers and decision-makers as a democratic contribution.

In the past few years, the Danish Board of Technology has organised a series of consensus conferences on subjects such as food irradiation, mapping the human genome, childlessness and, most recently, electronic identity cards. When the report on mapping the human genome appeared in 1989, it provoked the Danish parliament into debating the key issue of the use of genetic information for purposes of employment and insurance. Here, then, is a signal example of the way in which genuine public concerns can be fed into the formal processes of representative democracy.

The fact that our own Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research Council (BBSRC) has decided to commission the Science Museum to organise a consensus conference on plant biotechnology reflects a growing conviction among scientists and technologists that Britain, too, needs to take far more seriously the need for dialogue between science and the public. All of us who are involved in this initiative - the BBSRC, the Science Museum, the lay volunteers making their way to Oxford, and the experts who have been invited to give evidence - realise that we are involved in a genuine experiment in democracy.

There are significant risks for all of the participants in this experiment. Organisers may have their arrangements overturned; experts may have their judgements questioned; lay volunteers may have their verdicts rejected. In the end, though, I think we shall have succeeded if we, first, show that it is possible for experts with different views to have a sensible and constructive conversation with lay people about new technologies; and, second, can demonstrate to decision-makers that it is worth taking seriously what a group of ordinary citizens think about key issues when they have a chance to get their teeth into them.

The writer is assistant director at the Science Museum and Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Imperial College, London.

If you would like to attend the UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology, contact Imelda Topping at the Science Museum Library, London SW7; 071-938 8241 (phone), 071-938 8313 (fax).

(Photograph omitted)