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Citizen Participation in Science and Technology

di Redazione FGB [1], 22 Settembre 2008

In this posting I would like to have a look at the work of the CIPAST [2] project and a report published late last year by Chloe Alexander of the University of Padova in which she describes and analyses the workings and perceived effectiveness of the project.

At time of high science and technology issues, it is essential to include civil society in debate and discussion.

The CIPAST project (Citizen Participation in Science and Technology) was funded by the EU for three years with the aim of encouraging the active participation of society in the policies of scientific research and technological innovation. It's objectives were to structure a broad network of European actors involved in participative procedures and to carry out and foster a transfer of knowledge and expertise, the dissemination of good practices and the circulation of relevant information.

Roland Schare, the project co-ordinator says on the website:
"For about twenty years the controversies relating to questions with strong scientific and technological contents, have increased. They let new democratic expectations arise, both a need to know and a need to decide. Especially the questions about a participation of the civil society in the decision making process increases, which include the guidelines of a basic research as well as the dissemination of innovations, according to the social effects of science and technology.
In the countries of the European Union there are numerous experiences with participative procedures and processes, which differ strongly according to modalities, political background or political culture. The aim of the CIPAST network is to support - by the exchange of good practices and the transfers of expertise - the emergence of a European culture of citizens' participation in these fields,"

Citizen participation has evolved considerably over the last decade and bringing the actors together within the CIPAST platform hoped to provide an opportunity to foster the emergence of a European culture of participatory democracy in scientific and technological issues..

The project consortium [3] was filled with European organizations which have significant experiences in the use of participatory procedures in scientific and technological issues, including amongst others the CSI in Paris DHMD in Dresden and the CSD of Westminster University in London.

Through its website CIPAST produced a newsletter on a three month basis, giving information on the situation of participatory procedures in Europe, news about the project and its members and providing links to useful electronic and print resources aimed at strengthening civil society in Europe. The website is still online and contains the last newsletter, a special on nanotechnology that I will look at in my next posting.

The CIPAST in practice section of the site gives a description of the design and practices of the project and a free training package is available. The bibliography section gives a list of websites and publications on related topics from a wealth of different organizations

I am forced to narrate this story in the past as the project's three year mandate finished earlier this year and its funding has been revoked. This seems a shame to me as it looks like a very interesting project so I would like to have a look at a report that looks at the project from an external point of view.

In late 2007 in collaboration with Observa-Science in Society [4] Chloe Alexander of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Padova produced a report entitled:

The main aim of Chloe Alexander's study was to examine whether two of the European Commission's recent objectives were being reached by the funding of European network projects.
The empirical aspect of the thesis took the example of CIPAST. Nine interviews with representatives from each partner institution were carried out during the 2007 Procida Workshop. The effectiveness of the CIPAST project, the network structure of the project and the developments of deliberative democracy in the different member states were discussed.

Her conclusion claims that the two goals of the European Commission were being reached through the funding of the CIPAST project and network although highlights some of the issues and problems reported by her interviewees.

She also raises what I see as some very interesting and critical points in the main body of the paper about the scientific competence of the general public, their will to participate, their will to delegate responsibility to experts and politicians, perceptions about how their wishes will be taken and whether scientists actually want to divulge the technicalities of their work and listen to what the general public have to say about it.

The report is 40 pages long not as it appears when you download it as the final 30 pages are attachments and interview transcriptions so we can actually see what the participants said, and it is worth getting to the end as there are several interesting web links.

Having read the report I contacted the author with a short series of questions:

Q: The Bassetti foundation is interested in responsible innovation. How do you think the aims and workings of CIPAST could change our interpretation of the taking of responsibility? (During the interview with Maria Antonietta Foddai [6]posted on the site she talked about responsibility moving from an "I" to a "WE").

As explained in my paper, as citizens we were used to politicians making decisions regarding scientific and technological innovation together with scientists. This worked, up to a certain point in time, because it was also accompanied by an element of trust; we were happy for them to make the decisions and take the responsibility for them. The individual voted for the representative who they believed would make the best and most studied decisions creating an "I" element to how the public was involved in the process. Certain events and happenings in the last 30 years have led to a lessening of that trust and now we are looking at the studying, practicing and promotion of methods for public participation in which the "We" element like discussion, deliberation and sometimes group decisions and verdicts are central to the process.

Q: I am writing a series of pieces about nanotechnology. Given the complexity of this and other arguments how can we best prepare the public and give them the tools they need to participate in the debate?

As highlighted by the interviewees in the paper, the majority of the public still want to leave it to the experts to do their jobs and only the minority is interested in debating and deliberating. Some argue that education is the best way to prepare the public, others say information should be more widely available and more easily accessible. In theory, the participants of deliberative methods are chosen from all social backgrounds and the methods are accessible to all.

Q: Having studied the current methodologies aimed at promoting public participation in decision making do you have any criticisms or ideas?

Obvious limitations like: reluctance to accept these methods on the politicians part and the fact that the cost is high compared to the impact which the deliberation processes have, are apparent when one comes to look at them as we did at the CIPAST workshop. Ideas are constantly being experimented but, until politicians accept the methods as helpful rather than hindering, funding and development are limited.

Q: How do you see the future unfolding for deliberative democracy?

As with any democratic movement, time is essential and, looking at it form the point of view of European integration, there are countries which have already started to use, include and accept the methodologies and others which have a long way to go before this can happen. The simple fact that the CIPAST project successfully joined representatives and members of the former and of the latter in discussion and workshops means that the process has started.

The author is currently working on other local projects including a project related to the democratization of hospital management and tells me that various project members are looking to continue their work together on this theme.

I will endevour to find out more.

Mostra/Nascondi i link citati nell'articolo

Link citati nell'articolo:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.cipast.org/
  3. 3] //www.cipast.org/cipast.php?section=33&PHPSESSID=d6d884d10a5db664cc4057ee79e6fcfa
  4. 4] http://www.observa.it
  5. 5] http://www.cipast.org/download/Chloe%20Alexander%20-%20Deliberative%20Democracy.pdf
  6. 6] /en/focus/2008/09/responsibility_and_uncertainty.html
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