C Explanatory memorandum
by Mr Schennach, rapporteur
As underlined in the Parliamentary
on “Technological convergence, artificial intelligence
and human rights”, developments in science and technology related
to the field of genetics and genomics, neurosciences, big data,
artificial intelligence and robotics offer many opportunities, but
also raise alarming ethical and legal questions.
The report will focus on new forms of public debate as an
element of enhanced governance for the future. Indeed, “science
and technology cannot contribute to progress unless, at the same
time, there is democratic progress”.Note
am referring to “public dialogue” since this term expresses the
political commitment to include the public in the governance process
and to take its opinion into account. A constructive dialogue should
also build on enhanced “public exchange”, that is the possibility
to confront different arguments and points of view, without necessarily
The need for public debate and appropriate consultation is
clearly stated as a principle in Article 28 of the Council of Europe
Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (ETS No.164, Oviedo Convention). However,
considering the speed of technological change, this principle ought
to be examined carefully in the current context and I believe it
should also be extended to applications of converging technologies
This report is therefore intended to be complementary to the
current work of the Council of Europe Bioethics Committee (DH-BIO)
which has prepared a practical guide for initiating public debates
in the biomedical field.Note
5. I wish to thank Mr Lars Klüver, Director of the Danish Board
of Technology Foundation who has a long-standing experience in developing
methodologies for public debates in the science and technology field
and who assisted me with background research. In the committee,
we held a hearing with Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, President
of the Comité Consultatif National d’Ethique (National
Ethical Consultative Committee for life sciences and health (CCNE)),
who presented the public debate on bioethics for which the CCNE
had a mandate from the French government to organise in 2018, ahead
of the (periodical) review of the French Law on Bioethics in 2020.
Moreover, we have gathered information on five other examples of
public debates in Ireland, Latvia, the Republic of Moldova, the
Netherlands and Poland to illustrate a variety of approaches that reflect
different political and cultural contexts and traditions (or lack
of) for holding public debates in Europe.
2 The rationale for public debate on
issues related to science and technology
Rapid advancements in science
and technology considerably increase the complexity of the challenges European
societies are facing today. The UN 17 global Sustainable Development
can serve as an example: They consist
of 169 partial goals, all of which demand deep analysis, well designed
strategies and concerted action at all levels of society, from all
sectors, and from a very wide range of expertise.
7. This complexity is emphasised by so-called wicked problems,
in which there is uncertainty about the problem, the knowledge at
hand, and the possible solutions, and which implies that all positions
in the debate can be contested. They call for processes of resolution,
which inevitably must include a process of negotiation, in which
ideally all actors in society have their say, so that the outcome
can enjoy their support.
8. The citizenry has changed. During the last half century, the
level of education has increased dramatically, and media and the
internet are providing educational, lexical and contemporary information
at an incredible rate. Citizens focus more on the rationales behind
and consequences of decisions/developments rather than on following
a single party or ideological path.
9. At the same time new communication channels have emerged,
which on the one hand have increased the intensity of societal debate,
but on the other hand have created “echo chambers”, generational
distances and new options for those who want to manipulate public
10. Trust in institutions has decreased. There are many possible
explanations. One is that institutions have not sufficiently proved
that they are able to avoid crises and solve the big challenges.
Another is that only a few institutions have had enough focus on
new governance systems in order to be able to face the described
new situation. Parliaments are not ahead of the technological development
and as a result, legislation becomes reactive instead of anticipating
and orientating the science and technology developments for the
future. This law-lagging introduces a risk of frustration among
the public and in the policy-making domain.
of existing methodologies and practice
The state-of-art of societal
engagement (public debate) is quite advanced. For example, the European Commission
has recently developed a toolbox that provides tools for most of
the needed engagement processes,Note
as well as indications as to how
to choose an appropriate tool for a specific situation. However, the
next step would be to promote these tools so that they can be used
more often and more widely across Europe, and as part of this challenge,
to develop competences and capacity among institutions in member States
and at European level. Engagement practices need to become an embedded
part of institutional procedures – to raise awareness and to facilitate
open decision-making processes regarding science and technology
and their impacts on society and individual human rights.
A very wide range of methods
has been developed with close to 60 core methods, with each often
having several variants.Note
origin of methods is diverse. Some are inspired by the judicial
process (Irish model of Citizens’ Assembly or Danish model of Consensus
Conference). Others are adapted forms of processes used for example
in innovation and design, organisation development, conflict resolution
or opinion analysis. Many have been designed for a specific purpose
and afterwards adapted to become more generic.
13. The European Commission toolbox contains methods for societal
engagement for whole systems of use, for example for all phases
of the decision-making process: finding visions, needs or concerns;
creating solutions and specifying them; filtering solutions with
regard to effectiveness and/or acceptability; taking decisions;
and finally, implementing those decisions.
14. There are also methods for the four levels of science and
technology related activities: science and technology policy-making,
defining the framework conditions for science and technologies;
open research agenda setting, allowing society to suggest science
and technology activities according to their visions, needs and
concerns; science and technology steering at institutional and/or
project level, providing societal influence on the focus, outcome
and impact of science and technology(for example so-called “Science
Shops”); and societal engagement in the science/innovation process,
for example by being co-researchers, co-innovators, delivering data
or interpreting results.
15. Most societal engagement methods are designed for institutions
to be able to invite actors in society to co-produce a result. This
is sometimes called “invited” or “top-down” public debate. In contrast
to this, “bottom-up” participation, often exemplified with citizen
movements and demonstrations, can be seen as an authentic expression
of positions among citizens.
16. The challenge for invited participation is, of course, to
ensure that the topics taken up and the processes used actually
relate to the needs expressed by the public. Content must be relevant
and related to the needs and concerns of the citizens, and processes
must be open to allow for the participants to express themselves without
being restricted. An important challenge for invited participation
is, thus, to avoid too tight framing of the issues discussed and
restricting the messages from participants.
of methods for specific purposes
17. The reason that the toolbox
is relatively large is that each different method has strengths
and weaknesses, and its main fields of application. The methodology,
therefore consists of the toolbox, the ability to pick the right
tool, and the ability to use it. There are many parameters to take
into account when picking the right tool, such as: to fit with the
resources available, for example budget, access to needed expertise,
staff skills and experience with the method; to fit with the situation,
namely timing to other processes, expected types of outcome, the
freedom of action for the participants (for example will the problem
be predefined?); legitimacy of the method, namely transparency,
representativeness, level of information provided to participants,
balance in expertise among witnesses, etc; and the desired main
roles that the method should play.
18. The parameter on desired roles should be well understood before
choosing a method. The figure below shows one approach to this,
the so-called TAMI Framework, which characterizes roles according
to what should be done? and about what?
- Technical options assessed and
- Comprehensive overview on consequences given
- Setting the agenda in the political
- Stimulating public debate
- Introducing visions or scenarios
Reframing of the debate
- New action plan or initiative to
further scrutinise the problem decided
- New orientation in policies established
- Structure of conflicts made transparent
- Self-reflecting among actors
- Blockade running
- Bridge building
New decision-making processes
- New ways of governance introduced
- Initiative to intensify public debate taken
- Policy objectives explored
- Existing policies assessed
Re-structuring the policy
- Comprehensiveness in policies
- Policies evaluated through debate
- Democratic legitimisation perceived
- Policy alternatives filtered
- Innovations implemented
- New legislation is passed
With the new forms of public
debate, it is imperative to avoid that decisions about methods jump
to conclusions. A very useful process of selecting methods would
be to follow a logical exploration of demands:
- Ensure commitment. Societal
engagement should not become window-dressing. If it is not used
by those who can act upon its outcomes, then it is probably not
worth the effort.
- Define the problem and need. Determining the problem and
being clear on how societal engagement can contribute to the search
for solutions are important steps towards choosing the right methods.
- Understand the situation and context. Timing, overview
of points of conflict, windows of opportunity for creating impact
are all aspects to consider.
- Who should be involved? It is essential to identify: who
should have co-ownership of the results; what the geographical reach
should be; how the participants should be composed; what are the
possible roles for citizens, experts, stakeholders and policy makers
in the process and the target groups of the results.
20. The choice of the method demands some pragmatism and weighing
these aspects up against each other.
challenges and stumbling blocks
21. The implementation of societal
engagement practices brings a range of challenges. Some of these
can be solved by increasing the capacity and competence of engagement
practitioners, others demand more fundamental changes.
issues at stake and focusing on the consultation
22. An important quality of the
new forms of public debate is that they provide the required information
to the participants so that they can provide reflected answers,
in contrast to opinion polls, that most often look for the reflex
opinion based on restricted access to information.
The question arises, about how much information the participants
need to receive in order to be sufficiently equipped for the debates
and reflections they are expected to provide. This of course needs
to be decided on a case by case basis and the answer will depend
on the complexity of the issue and of the already existing general
level of information among citizens. However, there are some guiding
principles that can be of help:
need for technical information is often overestimated. With most
technical developments a very good overview of the technical elements
and characteristics makes it possible to take part in the principal discussions
on the societal aspects.
- The need for information about the societal aspects is
often underestimated. Realistic and balanced information about the
ethical, social and economic dimensions of the topic, including
the potential consequences for human rights, is key to having an
informed public debate.
- Creating well balanced information is a matter of methodology.
With existing co-writing processes and good peer reviewing of the
information materials, it is possible to create balanced, comprehensive
and condensed information that can be understood by a very large
majority of participants.
- The deliberation adds to the information level. An important
aspect of having time for discussion among the participants is that
it provides opportunities for them to mutually increase their understanding
of the topic and its implications.
- Avoid the temptation of too strong framing. The problem
at hand should be well defined, but it should not be over-simplified
or too restricted in scope. The reflected deliberation in societal
engagement can deliver important results that were not expected,
so too strong framing may prove counterproductive.
In the Netherlands, for example, 11 organisations took the
initiative to organise a series of public dialogues to ascertain
the views of Dutch society towards the modification of heritable
DNA in the early development of human embryos. The Rathenau Instituut
and instruments (scenarios) for conducting a national dialogue on
It reviewed what is already known
regarding public opinion on the subject and presented an analysis
of the reasons for the existing regulations. It has also covered
the ethical and social issues that play or could play a role in
the dialogue on the question of whether targeted modification of
the genome of future persons is acceptable, and if so, for what
purposes and under what conditions. In addition, four techno-moral
future scenarios or foresight studies were developed. Based on these
scenarios, NEMO Kennislink has produced techno-moral vignettes (in
this case, animations) to facilitate a discussion on the social
implications of the use of germline genome editing. The Dutch Ministry
of Health, Welfare and Sport welcomed and financed this project
entitled “A public dialogue on germline genome editing”. The project
started in January 2019 and the first public event was held in October
2019. The outcomes of the dialogue will be used as input for political
debate on amending the Dutch Embryo Act.
25. Moreover, it may be necessary to establish an independent
secretariat to implement a societal engagement process. Independence
helps to enable a process that can be accepted by all those involved, making
sure that the process is well framed, informed, fair and transparent,
especially if the topic is controversial and surrounded by distrust.
26. For example, a public consultation was set up in France in
2018 prior to revising the Framework Law on Bioethics in 2019. This
public debate has been organised by an independent organisation
– the CCNE – with a task to steer a genuine exercise in democratic
deliberation, inviting citizens, both lay or informed, and experts to
express their opinions and discuss them together. At the end of
the consultative process, CCNE reported the outcomes to the government
in addition to issuing their own opinion on substance. The role
of CCNE as a neutral and trustworthy organisation was crucial. The
diversity of methods used to collect information has resulted in
a considerable diversity of perspectives. The presence of many experts
in various disciplines has enabled a real wealth of information.
Similarly, the presence of moderators made it possible to conduct
the debates in a climate of tolerance and serenity.
people to participate
27. It is encouraging for citizens
to sense that policy makers will actually listen, that the outcomes
of the activity will be documented and be used in the process of
analysis and policy making, and that the process will be fair, open
for diversity of people and opinions, and well planned and facilitated.
Sensing the opposite will often demotivate people from participating
or maybe even motivate them to participate in an unconstructive manner.
28. Getting influence is motivating. Managing expectations is
therefore essential. The plans on how the results will be used should
be spelled out clearly at the outset when inviting citizens to participate.
If there are doubts about how to use the outcomes of a public debate
then this should be stated clearly. Citizens can accept that policy
processes can be quite complicated, but they cannot accept to be
The motivation for citizens to participate in public debates
may depend on history and political culture in their country/region.
Nations that have a history of non-democratic regimes will have
to prove their new orientation towards open and new public dialogue,
and probably even prove it by establishing new institutions for
such dialogue and investing in a certain level of public dialogue
activity. There are very convincing examples around the world of
the highly motivating effect of such a clear new direction towards
open and dialogue-based governance.Note
influence of lobbies
One important role of dialogue
with citizens can be to counteract excess lobbyism by inviting citizens
to be independent assessors. In this sense, societal engagement
can be seen as a way for policy makers and institutions to make
the general public an ally against strong influence from vested
interests. This function of public engagement has even been used
to counteract corruption by giving groups of independent citizens
the power to take economic decisions – for example “participatory
budgeting” in some Latin American regions.Note
Given that public debate should ensure that all interests
in society have their voices heard, lobbies should not be excluded
from public debates. However, this democratic ideal also means that
lobbies should not be favoured over citizens or other less resourceful
stakeholders. In practice such an ideal can be implemented in several
ways, as for example:
steering committees for the public debate can be set up, in which
lobbies from all interests are represented, so that they are given
ownership to the process.
- A balanced panel of lobbies and expertise can be asked
to provide their statements towards the participants to ensure that
they are heard.
- Participants can be separated into “participants with
vested interests” and “participants from the general public”. These
may have a dialogue together, but when it comes to providing answers/votes
in the process, their answers are analysed separately, so that the
differences between the answers from the vested interests and the
general citizens are made transparent.
32. The open and balanced nature of societal engagement is not
necessarily favoured by some vested interests, because they prefer
to lobby for their special views and interests rather than having
them discussed in the open. In the worst cases, lobbies can seriously
undermine an open process, for example by overrunning open meetings
or executing pressure on participants, by orchestrating demonstrations
against citizen consultations, etc. Lottery and invited participation
can be used to avoid meetings being overrun. Clear rules for participation
should be stated that provide opportunities for the facilitator
to exclude participants that act unacceptably.
33. It is important to avoid giving lobbies excessive power in
steering committees, since they can halt the execution of a public
dialogue. However, lobbyists can become very constructive actors
when there is a clear political commitment to pursue a public debate
and listen to the outcomes. Lobbyists are not only serving their specific
interest. They can often provide important knowledge and they often
weigh this knowledge high in the sense that, if they are invited
to provide their expertise, then they very often participate constructively
in public debates, not overplaying their interests. Seeing and treating
lobbyists as experts can be therefore a fruitful way of integrating
them in public debates. However, as with other experts, their possible
bias must be balanced out by inviting other experts with different
34. The NIMBY (“Not-In-My-Back-Yard”)
problem describes the fact that topics often have a general as well as
a local facet to them, especially when it comes to physical planning.
Having wind turbines is generally regarded as a good thing, but
not when they are built next door. The problem is not specifically
linked to societal engagement, but the question arises if societal
engagement can provide the needed solutions.
35. Generally, if the process is well-designed to ensure that
those affected are listened to and their points seriously considered,
and that the final decision is democratic, then the chances of acceptance
of the solutions are higher. In practical terms this means that
the decision-making process ought to include: a public debate involving
those affected; a representative sample of the wider population;
a decision-making process in which the opinions of both groups are
considered thoroughly. For such a process to be successful it needs
to take seriously the needs, concerns and suggestions of those affected.
Messages from those affected about how they can be compensated for
the burdens they carry on behalf of society should be seriously
taken into account in the decisions, because they open up for those
affected to accept the process as a fair negotiation.
on outcomes and explaining final decisions
36. Ensuring commitment from decision
makers before initiating public debate is a key step to take: it
favours the commitment of all actors involved, including the citizens,
and gives a certain guarantee that the outcomes of the process are
seriously considered before decisions are made. This ought to be
planned before organising public debates in order to manage expectations
37. Evaluations often indicate that participants do not expect
or even want decision makers to make their decisions exactly according
to the outcomes of public debates, but they expect decision makers
to listen seriously to them, to consider their views and to take
them into account in the decision. Decision makers should therefore
refer to the public debate process when it has influenced the decision,
ensuring transparency and visibility of the role of such engagement
cultural and institutional barriers
38. Increased use of the new forms
of public debate will influence how decisions are taken, thus also influencing
power structures in society and in institutions. Change in power
structures will unavoidably create resistance, but it is necessary
if society is to gain from the positive impacts of societal engagement.
39. Besides the change in power structures, the new forms of debate
are newer in some cultures than in others. The change is, for example,
bigger in countries that have had authoritarian governance structures recently.
However, this challenge from the historical background is not necessarily
reflected in the abilities of the populations to manage and take
part in the new forms of public debate. Experience relates that
societal engagement methods “travel well” and work well in all countries
and cultures. Because of the historic and cultural differences,
however, they may signal a larger shift in culture of policy debate
in some countries than in others.
40. There are several barriers to overcome institutionally in
practically all countries. Not all institutions are used to opening
up for debates with different actors in society, not all have staff
that can ensure proper implementation of methods, and, again, the
shift of power structures is an important challenge.
learned to improve public consultation processes
awareness and capacity of different stakeholders to enter into constructive
a new culture within the policy and decision-making bodies, and
41. Besides the capacity and competences
to initiate and organise public debates, there is a need for competence
building on the user-side of such processes as well. Decision makers
of all kinds need to understand the assets and necessity of public
engagement in order to take it seriously and pay attention to the results.
42. This is not an easy task, especially because our democracies
are built on the idea of representation, which can be used as an
argument against influence from non-elected citizens. However, the
idea of a deliberative democracy is not in conflict with the idea
of representative democracy. What is new with deliberative democracy
is that decision makers listen more profoundly before they decide,
and what is not changed is that the elected representatives have
the responsibility of taking the decision in the end.
43. Deliberative democracy builds on many strands of democratic
thinking, which can converge into a common policy. From the liberal
side, societal engagement opens up for listening to the “policy
market”. From an enlightened democracy viewpoint, it favours new
policy discourse on a higher informed level. And, finally, from
a strong democracy point of view, it provides channels of influence
from the population directly to the institutions.
44. For example, a Citizens' Assembly was set up in Ireland in
2017-2018 to debate the controversial issue of abortion. The Assembly
was composed of 99 randomly selected private citizens. To ensure
the quality of the interactions, the experts and the materials given
to participants of the Assembly were selected in order to offer the
widest possible variety of perspectives. This task was the responsibility
of the Expert Advisory Group. Composed of academics and practitioners
of various fields of interests (political science, constitutional,
medical law, medicine, etc.), it had the mission to construct a
fair, balanced and comprehensive work program and to provide background
expert advice. The decision-making was deliberately slow, to allow
for a debate. The consensus-building techniques facilitated a greater
engagement and mutual respect. The information was presented in
a very intelligible way. Indeed, this public engagement was a two-way
process of communication: the objective was of course to inform
the public but also to gather evidence of public views to support
decision-making and to involve the public in decision-making.
for scientists and technology experts
The academic curriculum does
not favour societal engagement. Only a very small proportion of
scientists understand these sophisticated processes of dialogue.
Teaching and advisory resources are availableNote
but they are not introduced
to a single scientist. Connecting societal engagement to the academic
institutions and activities will largely depend on specialised practitioners
to regularly collaborate with scientists and their institutions.
Moreover, the academic curriculum ought to evolve to resolve this
problem in the long-term.
46. Scientists are increasingly aware of the need for improved
communication to the wider public, but are not yet aware of the
need for communication with the public. Science communication as
a one-way practice is becoming well established, and science centres/museums
generally are very competent in providing insights. The pathway
of “public understanding of science” is well underway. However,
the “scientists’ understanding of the public” is much less developed.
Consequently, innovations are often made in a scientific echo-chamber, without
a deeper understanding of its relation to the needs and concerns
of the citizens.
47. The so-called “intermediary institutions” may be an answer
to this challenge. Examples of such institutions are Technology
Assessment and Foresight institutions that have competences to assess
the potential societal impact from new technologies and to set up
societal engagement in order to improve the dialogue and to co-create
ethical debate in education systems
48. Citizens are generally very
capable of taking part in societal engagement processes, when the processes
provide the required information, time for deliberation and good
facilitation. However, such processes normally only include and
consult a small fraction of the population, though often a representative fraction.
49. The education systems (primary, secondary and higher education)
make up spaces in which young people ought to be trained to regularly
engage in debates on complex issues. This could include training
into “discourse ethics”, providing insight into the principles of
fair deliberations, including an introduction to different societal
engagement processes. Such curricula should be built around project-based
learning processes on contemporary cases of complex societal issues
linked to the developments in science and technology.
the communication flow between stakeholders
50. The new forms of public debate
are about establishing “four-way communication” between citizens, experts,
stakeholders and decision makers. However, this communication seldom
happens with all these actors at the same time. Most often the debate
is separated into situations where for example experts and stakeholders
give evidence and express their views; situations where citizens
deliberate; and situations where decision makers provide insights
from their point of view or receive or listen to the outcomes of
the debate. The new forms of debate are therefore dependent upon
the quality of the information flow and debate between citizens,
experts, stakeholders and decision makers.
and decision makers
51. In the new forms of public
debate, the role of experts and stakeholders is comparable. Both
give evidence about facts, assessments, interests, conflicts, possible
solutions etc., and both should be represented in a balanced manner,
ensuring that the information and evidence are unbiased. Methods
exist to ensure that evidence is given in open processes and deliberated
upon. Also, institutions of technology assessment are specialised
in assessing such evidence and giving policy options based on well-tested
procedures, including expert and stakeholder consultations.
52. The challenge in creating increased value of communication
with experts/stakeholders lies in the fact that biases are often
well hidden and sometimes not even known by the experts themselves.
For example, the disciplinary siloes in the scientific community
create risks for blind spots or paradigmatic bias in expert evidence.
Comparably, stakeholders may be driven by value systems that they
do not themselves question, such as ideological biases. One effective
answer to this challenge is to make use of a “counter-expertise” principle,
making sure that if there are several positions among experts/stakeholders,
then all, or at least the most opposing, of them should be heard.
This principle is, for example, implemented in the methodology of
the Consensus Conference, the Citizen Jury and the Parliamentary
53. As mentioned above, the main
challenge in the communication between experts/stakeholders and citizens
is the lack of “scientists’ understanding of the public”. Establishing
intermediary institutions could be a way to improve this communication.
Moreover, in most countries, science museum/centres and science journalism
provide accessible insights to developments in science and technology,
and scientists are increasingly aware of the need for better communication
towards society. However, the question remains how to establish
good dialogue when it comes to controversial issues linked to rapid
developments in science and technology. This dialogue is not a matter
of high-quality one-way communication to the public. But it is rather a
matter of high-quality public debate that can lead to satisfactory
solutions or compromises.
54. The development of European Genetically modified organisms
(GMO) policies provides an interesting example. GMO constituted
a main societal conflict about governance of new technologies. Several
countries initiated societal engagement processes to search for
ways to resolve the conflict. One main lesson that came out of these
processes, but which could not be seen from traditional opinion
polls, was that citizens had a very complex view involving a mix
of ethical and practical considerations. For example, it turned
out that the magnitude of the “marginal benefit” – meaning the new
benefit of a technology minus the perceived set of risks from the
technology – was a very determining factor for rejection or acceptance.
In practical terms, this meant that a GMO tomato was not accepted,
because good tomatoes already were available at a reasonable price, but
GMOs used for new medical treatments were accepted because they
promised new and affordable cures. These insights influenced the
design of the European regulation.
55. Looking ahead into a future where societies need to find compromises
and well-balanced solutions to challenges appearing from for example
Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, new gene editing techniques,
climate change mitigation and adaptation, decrease of biodiversity,
and other pressing future challenges, such investments in wide and
deep deliberative processes between experts/stakeholders and citizens
may prove to be the only way forward to make it possible for decision
makers to take widely accepted and robust decisions.
and decision makers
56. Traditional opinion polls are
no longer satisfactory as a basis for decision makers’ understanding
of the public attitude and expectations when it comes to new and
rapid developments in science and technology, for several reasons.
First, because of the rapid development, the general population
is not sufficiently informed to form a mature opinion, which gives
non-sustainable results from polls. An example would be the rapid
and wide development in machine learning, which only a small fraction
of the population is aware of or well-informed about, especially
when it comes to possible options for regulating the development.
57. Second, polls are too framed and restricted in their questioning
techniques to be able to uncover alternative visions or needs –
the solutions that citizens want, but that are not presented by
the science and technology development at hand. For example, polls
may ask about attitudes towards new, advanced, but expensive medical
treatments, and may register positive attitudes. But it is known
that if such developments are framed in a perspective of alternative
investments in equality in health and in widely distributed illnesses, then
these will get more support. Third, often there is a tendency towards
“hype” in an early phase of technology development, potentially
resulting in overly positive reactions, which may change radically
at a later stage when consequences are better known, and the hype
turns into realism.
58. In some cases of rapid development in science and technology,
there is a need for decision makers to act fast. As seen in retrospect,
the appearance of stem-cell technologies was such a case. Decision
makers required an indication of a “license to decide” from the
public, in order to take decisions that do not provoke a public
outcry. One way to proceed would be to develop projects which co-create
policy options with trans-disciplinary groups of experts, and then
filter these options in large-scale and representative citizen meetings (for
example Citizen Summits).
and enhancing the role of media
59. Media are developing fast with
the rise of new social media that bear increasing influence on public opinion.
Public broadcasters and common information channels are diminished
given that access to information is available everywhere and at
all times. Quick, controversial and sensationalist “news” in social media
prevail overusing reliable sources of information and undertaking
grounded research and analysis. General media insistence on news
criteria that focus on conflict and dissents therefore tend to oversimplify complex
issues by giving preference to controversy and sensationalism over
deeper analysis. Such an approach most often leads to very entrenched
positions in public opinion that are later difficult to change and hamper
a critical, open-minded, and broad analysis of the issues at stake
in all their different aspects. It is therefore imperative to explore
the options to develop new practices and channels for constructive
information exchange and deliberations.
media and public service broadcasters
Traditional media have important
roles to play, including public service responsibilities, to support
the new forms of public debate. Nonetheless, it would be important
to consider if they should be implementing such debates in their
own domain. There have been examples of experiments in which media
have been hosting societal engagement processes, and they were not
What should have been
a societal engagement in order to find a balanced compromise often
ends up being a search to identify a winning position of the majority.
61. On the positive side, “constructive journalism” is beginning
to appear as a new line of media reporting, which focuses more on
possible solutions than on conflicts. The two landscapes are quite
different. The fact that opposing views can be identified in a debate
does not necessarily reflect the state of discussion on a theme,
if these (extreme) opposing views misinterpret the debate as a whole.
Therefore, constructive and traditional journalism may supplement
each other very well, with a view to supporting the new forms of
debate in society. It is necessary to acknowledge that journalism
is not in itself societal engagement, however journalism may be
a very strong “technique” in the processes of societal engagement.
62. The influence from social media
on societal developments, including on policy and democracy, has
been the subject of discussion in recent years. Some characteristics
of social media create problems rather than solutions to facilitate
public debate. “Echo chambers” of communication in which opinions
are being sustained and amplified instead of being challenged and
analysed, make up a barrier to mutual understanding across positions.
Regrettably, “fake news” and deliberate manipulation in social media
distort the communication and turn it away from the important issues
that need attention.
63. Social media can of course play a role in making societal
engagement visible, to support the recruitment of participants for
public debate, and also to give attention to the outcomes. However,
as information technology infrastructure for societal engagement,
the role of social media seems to be very limited.
This does not mean that societal engagement cannot make use
of online functions. In recent years, several practitioner environments
have experimented with specialised tools for online and “blended” engagement,
the latter being physical societal engagement meetings supported
by information and communication technology tools.Note
formats of societal engagement become possible when online tools are
used as support. For example, the tool EngageSuite makes it possible
to set up online facility for small “kitchen table” face-to-face
meetings that citizens can arrange themselves. This gives hope for
future methods, which make use of a practically unlimited number
of widely distributed small meetings, also across languages and
geography. This methodology is being experimented with, but still
needs to be proven.
65. Recruitment of participants in the online domain is a well
described challenge because the fraction of people who are active
online users is rather small in many countries and not representative
with regard to age, gender, education and geography. This means
that recruitment of participants has to follow known principles from
off-line societal engagement, even if the activity is supported
by online mechanisms. In the long term, there is hope that the user
base of the specialised tools will increase, so that it will be
possible to obtain representativeness in these methods.
66. Online engagement is not yet where it should be, and social
media has not proven to be a solution. But tools are being developed
which give reasonable hope about new methods that can make use of
the geographic scope and universal availability that the online
world can provide.
67. At political level, we are
not sufficiently aware of the growing impact of science and technology
on society and on the daily lives of every individual. The challenge
is twofold: to better inform both politicians and the general public
of rather complex and controversial matters generated by scientific
and technological development; and to raise public and policy makers’
interest on these questions, the importance of which is shadowed
by social and economic concerns.
68. Given the complexities of scientific and technological convergence,
scientists and experts must be more involved in an interdisciplinary
exchange and be part of new forms of open, informed and adversarial
public debate. There is a need to ensure transparency of their position,
to unveil any connection to corporate interests of industry, and
for them to acquire the ability to communicate their research in
a clear and understandable way to a wider public.
69. In terms of governance, it is increasingly difficult for lawmakers
to match the speed at which science and technologies evolve with
the required regulations and standards. The timespan is getting
increasingly shorter to evaluate risks and determine the medium
and long-term consequences on human health and the implications
for human rights. Parliaments risk finding themselves powerless
in the face of the development of new technologies by companies
and large groups experienced in the rapid commercialisation of innovations.
70. To reverse this general trend of law-lagging, we need new
types of legislation that can be reviewed regularly as is the case
in France with the Framework Law on Bioethics which is designed
to be reviewed periodically to match the speed of developments.
71. We also need to anticipate and publicly discuss, from the
outset of the process, the directions that research should take
to make sure that progress in science and technology corresponds
to human progress. The scientific and technological foresight should
no longer remain the exclusive remit of researchers and industry.
We need to re-connect scientific and technological developments
with fundamental values.
72. To face these challenges, I would strongly advocate developing
a culture of permanent dialogue and working together to prepare
younger generations for this. It will no longer be a question of
organising a series of “one-off” public consultations which precede
legislative changes, but rather maintaining an open dialogue.
73. Informed debate on scientific and technological developments
and ethical considerations should be therefore part of the school
curricula, both in terms of regular practice to cultivate dialogue
and to develop the ability to understand and analyse complex matters
in the domain of science and technology.
Last, but not least, we need to reinforce the capacity of
our parliamentary bodies to be pro-active in this complex decision-making
process and ensure that “informed decisions” are the outcome. The
development of parliamentary technology assessment institutions,
with adequate resources, should be encouraged. I trust that parliaments
which do have the support of such institutions can testify to their
value and would be ready to share their experiences. The European
Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA) networkNote
is there also to this aim, and we
should make better use of the cumulative expertise this network
can and is willing to provide.
75. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its tragic societal and economic
consequences across the world, gives us a totally new perspective.
It opens a wide spectrum of issues that we need to consider during
this crisis and beyond. Today, many issues of concern require our
immediate attention, such as: surveillance, tracking and sharing
of telecommunications metadata; restrictions on access to information
and media freedom; access to healthcare, equal treatment and non-discrimination
of all citizens; co-ordination and synergy in scientific research;
equity in use of technology and access to remote education; etc.
However, we will also need to consider broader issues which will
be fundamental for the future. I believe we will need to collectively
re-consider the social value attributed to jobs; the value of public
services; the social value of “real” economy as opposed to value
driven by financial markets; the role of agriculture and local production;
energy, water and food supply security; self-reliance and resilience
of public health systems; the environmental footprint of our choices
and lifestyles; and the need for international co-operation and
76. Maintaining an open dialogue on such key issues will be essential
to uphold and strengthen our democracies. For this reason, we must
consolidate the culture of public dialogue and seek to develop the capacities
of young people and the wider public to analyse different options
for a sustainable functioning of our societies. Today, this is essential
in the context of the COVID-19 crisis: we shall not only recover
but seek to rebuild more resilient and sustainable societies, with
a more social and greener economy in the future.