Sciencewise, the Government funded body which aims to improve science and technology policy-making by making better use of public dialogue, is celebrating its tenth birthday this year.
Set up in 2004 in the wake of the fiasco that was GM foods, Sciencewise has done much within Whitehall and Westminster to advance the case for a more open, robust and consistent approach to developing a dialogue with the public. And to demonstrate how it can be done. It can not have been easy.
Today it has published some lessons and reflection from the past ten years. They are collected in a short booklet entitled: ‘The best of: Sciencewise reflections on public dialogue.’ There was also a webinar today which I could not attend.
Some of those lessons – such as the importance of public dialogue in the early stages of policy-making – may seem obvious. But unfortunately they need rehearsing. Dialogue in hindsight remains all too common (it is a key message coming from patients and the public in the ‘Breaking Boundaries’ review, for instance).
They are therefore timely reminders for those of you who are about to embark on, as I am, a piece of work involving public dialogue. I am chairing the Health Research Authority’s (HRA) second public dialogue project. The first can be found here. We are just about to appoint the organisations to help us do the work and I know the resources and further reading in this pamphlet will help me and the oversight group stay true to the principles of public dialogue.
Some random thoughts came to me as I read the short version of the booklet. It is true to say that in this age of small, central Government, there is now a real desire to get an insight into how the public think and feel about an issue so that policies can be more effectively and efficiently developed. But Government’s do a poor job of sharing this insight as they develop policy.
Our dialogue exercises tend to focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ We ask the public less about the ‘how.’ This would seem an oversight. Government is less capable and less willing to do things from the centre and yet my sense is that the public still view Ministers and Government as bearing the most responsibility to make things happen. Our discourse should be as much about correcting this assumption and getting their ideas on how to build new ways of getting things done.
It would have been nice to have heard reflections from people about how they feel Sciencewise – in terms of individual projects and in the round – has changed the public debate about science and technology as well as the degree to which it has influenced policy and implementation. I suspect it has been more than we think, that its influence has been considerable behind the closed doors of Whitehall.
Also, given the rich material that Sciencewise must now have at its disposal (as well as NIHR for that matter following Breaking Boundaries), surely there is a case for setting up a National Library of Public Dialogue and Involvement in Science)?
Lastly, I do hope we see another ten years of Sciencewise, I really do. It has its faults and its critics but it is essential to public discourse on science issues.