The Participatory Imperative

Looking back over the past two decades, it was a shared understanding at the Seminar that there has been a marked overall trend in the governance of science and technology towards the successively more serious and substantive forms of participatory process alluded to in Arnstein’s scheme.

Looking back over the past two decades, it was a shared understanding at the Seminar that there has been a marked overall trend in the governance of science and technology towards the successively more serious and substantive forms of participatory process alluded to in Arnstein’s scheme.

This was referred to by one working group as a move towards a ‘negotiation paradigm’, under which participants are afforded an increasing degree of agency in framing the process itself and in determining the outcomes [Q].

Underpinning this trend, is a growing realisation on the part of researchers, practitioners and wider governance institutions, that – when supported in appropriate ways – nonspecialist citizens can prove highly proficient at understanding the salient complexities in policy making on science and technology and arriving responsibly at meaningful conclusions [J].

This is true in principle equally of people recruited as citizens or as representatives of contending stakeholder interests. Of course, there are some caveats and qualifications that go with this message [J] that are discussed below (see Section 2.2.4).

But the bottom line message is that the increasing policy imperative towards participatory process noted in the introduction to this report (Section 2.1 above) is borne out by growing experience of the latent capacity, the emerging benefits and the future potential.

Although the details remain open for discussion, many of the particular benefits of participatory process in science governance were also a matter of general agreement at the seminar. Where scientific research and technological innovation are aimed at delivering socially useful outcomes, then participation fulfils a crucial role in validating these outcomes [Q].

In other words, participatory process provides an effective and legitimate means to inform policy making concerning the appropriate values to apply in orienting and prioritising the purposes towards which scientific activity is directed.

Likewise, where scientific research is aimed at informing decision making on the regulation of technologies with potential environmental or health risks, or wider social impacts, participation offers a way to help prioritise the different dimensions of appraisal and identify important questions that might otherwise remain neglected [J].

In short, wherever the governance of science addresses political or economic interests or social and cultural values, participatory process offers an effective way to inform policy making of the specific ways in which these values and interests interact with the technical details and possibilities [E].

This recognition of a role for participatory process in the governance of science need not imply a compromise on the autonomy of science in resolving and addressing its own internal research priorities [G].

Where they are removed from concrete social implications, purely curiosity-driven research and criteria of scientific quality may remain independent of any imperative to participatory process.

However, where the funding of scientific research or technological innovation are driven by political or economic purposes, or have a bearing on wider social priorities, then it is difficult to refute the benefits of rigorous procedures for illuminating, exploring and validating these driving interests and values. Despite these widely acknowledged benefits, it was also a shared understanding at the seminar, that the establishment of participatory processes as a mainstream feature of science governance in the EU faces many obstacles.

In particular, there is – despite the rhetoric – a persistent tendency on the part of senior people in powerful government and industry bodies often to see exercises in ‘participatory process’ simply as an effective means to justify (and so help deliver) what were referred in the seminar as “predecided policies” [I].

Likewise, another key driver of official interest in ‘participatory process’ is the desire to remedy a perceived increase in ‘distrust’ in the institutions of science governance [K].

This rather narrow instrumental concern for the fostering of trust in particular incumbent institutions is quite distinct from the more open and democratic agenda of empowerment, represented by the later steps in Arnstein’s ladder.

It also contrasts with the substantive rationale for participation discussed above, in terms of more rigorous approaches to testing and validating the values and interests that inform science.

As a result, as one working group noted, there exists an important tension between some ‘top-down’ and many ‘bottom up’ perspectives on the nature and function of participatory process [I].

This underscores the importance of efforts to establish the ‘business case’ [O] for the ‘added value’ [E] of participation, both for society as a whole and also for the presently established institutions of science governance.

Some practical implications are discussed later in this report in the sections on constructing a ‘business case’ for the ‘mainstreaming’ of participation (Sections 4.2.1 and 4.2.2 below).

Key Challenges

Resistance to ‘Embedding’

The discussion thus far has established (i) a strong policy imperative for participatory process in science governance, coupled with (ii) broad recognition of the manifest benefits, capacity and potential. However it has also noted a number of obstacles to progress, including – at high political levels – persistent misunderstanding and misuse of the language of participation, and of participatory approaches themselves.

Taken together, this presents a formidable series of challenges that were discussed in some detail at the Seminar. Perhaps the principal challenge concerns the lack of high-level political backing for the development and implementation of participatory processes in science governance.

This was observed most acutely by the working group reviewing recent experience in the field of biotechnology [E], but a similar picture emerged repeatedly in other areas [H]. Despite acknowledging the importance of European Commission support for a number of ‘first generation’ initiatives, the working group looking at these studies identified a major difficulty in the experience of trying to ‘sell’ participatory process to policy makers [I].

This applies equally to prospective exercises in the ‘upstream’ (ex ante) appraisal of policy decisions, research commitments or technology choices and ‘downstream’ initiatives for (ex post) evaluation of past decisions, commitments or choices [I].

It compounds with more detailed concerns, the picture of the general obstacles discussed in the previous section (Section 3.1) concerning the pressure to use participatory process simply as a means to justify pre-committed decisions [I] or to foster narrow instrumental objectives concerning institutional credibility and trust [K].

Taken together, it is clear to the experienced researchers and practitioners represented at the Seminar that many senior people in science governance institutions have little knowledge of the real nature and purpose of participatory processes [K].

There is also a fear on the part of some such senior people that the close scrutiny necessarily associated with participatory process – far from promoting trust – may actually risk a loss of control (or even a negative impact) over their own organisational reputations or public image [F].

This is especially so, if the organisations concerned envisage the likelihood that their own institutional interests may ultimately compel rejection the recommendations arising from a truly independent participatory process (see Section 3.2.1).

Compounding this, the intrinsically interdisciplinary character of public engagement activities can also sit uncomfortably with what is often the much narrower disciplinary remit of individual science governance institutions [O].

Taken together, this experience raises queries over the willingness of high level policy making institutions to make serious provision for the kind of public self-reflection, let alone self-criticism, which often forms a positive element (and consequence) of public engagement [I].

The Role of ‘Framing’

The overall challenge that arises from this picture, returned to repeatedly in discussion at the Seminar, is one of ‘embedding’ participatory process as an essential element in ‘upstream’ policy appraisal in the high level governance of science and technology [H].

By ‘upstream engagement’, what is meant is the use of participatory process at the earliest stages in the formulation of policy, at a time when the form of such policy is still realistically open to influence.

In other words, participation is as relevant to decisions over the ‘framing’ of a policy issue as it is to the particular features of the decisions that eventually arise [E]. Participation is about ‘deciding what to do’ as well as ‘deciding how to do it’.

Through the repeated emphasis on the importance of participation in ‘upstream framing’, discussants at the seminar were referring to basic questions over the ‘who?’, ‘where?’, ‘when?’, ‘what?’ and ‘how?’of the policy formulation process [H].

This involves issues such as the way in which a policy problem is defined and the particular questions that are posed for science to answer [E]. It includes factors like the kind of information and perspectives that are deemed relevant to policy making, the boundaries that are placed around the type of issue to be included [Q] and the assumptions that are adopted in seeking to resolve these questions [G].

Of course, this implies a necessity that the framing of participatory process should itself be a matter for participation [K]. In order to avoid this leading to a cumbersome, endlessly recursive process (over how to frame the framing), the practical message is simply that ‘upstream’ participatory processes in the field of science and governance, should be granted a high degree of autonomy [K][S].

In other words, the participants should have a role in ‘setting the rules’for their own participation, as well as in following these rules [R].

Inertia and Realism

The response to this challenge is returned to in detail in Section 3.2.2 below. For the moment, it is important to emphasise, that the manifest scepticism on the part of many senior figures policy in making institutions is not the only challenge faced in efforts to ‘embed’ participatory process.

A series of further difficulties reside closer to home – in the practices, assumptions and advocacy of the participation community itself. Perhaps most important to acknowledge, is that participatory process can often be more costly and more time consuming than other approaches to policy consultation [G].

The co-ordination of diverse contending interests required by participation is inherently complex and demanding [G]. Although such burdens may often be outweighed by the benefits, the case for participation must be demonstrated and not simply asserted.

Yet many of the issues on which participatory processes are most useful tend (for that very reason) to be among the most intractable.

This is so, for instance, with the ‘dilemma of the commons’ in the fisheries case discussed in some detail at the Seminar. The effect here is to render it much more difficult to achieve clear criteria for success [G].

In seeking to resolve this challenge, it is not simply the manifest lack of knowledge on the part of policy making institutions that is problematic, but also a more widespread lack of understanding of the nature and purpose of participatory process among broader stakeholders and the general public [K].

This lack of understanding is often compounded by underlying instrumental attitudes, under which engagement in participatory process is seen as a (often rather inefficient) means to promote the narrow vested interests of the organisations concerned.

The concerns on this score include uncertainties over the eventual outcomes and a perceived risk that participation may have a co-opting effect, helping to legitimate any unfavourable outcomes that may arise [F].

Alternatively, stakeholder inertia may simply be due to fatigue, caused especially by the inability of small civil society organisations to resource their own engagement in an increasing frequency and intensity of calls to ‘participate’ [K].

To set against this discussion, it must be said that the qualities of self-reflection and self-criticism found in discussion by some at the seminar to be lacking in policy makers [I], are also not always prominent among advocates of participation.

Here, it is important to recognise – and be open about – the fact that, participation will not always necessarily offer the best means to deal with any given policy challenge.

This was held to be especially true by the working group on the theme of ‘nanotechnology and ICT’, for instance, in cases where the issues in contention are exclusively ideological or acutely controversial in nature or where they are too complex and technical [G].

In the former case, the political polarisation militates against effective deliberation. In the latter case, the difficulties of engaging on detail have a corresponding negative effect. Likewise, advocacy of participation may sometimes display a tendency to romanticise the capabilities or judgement of the nonspecialist citizen, or of the participatory process itself [K].

The design of participatory process requires careful balancing of a number of contending pressures, some of which are discussed in succeeding sections (see Sections 4.1.4 and 4.2.3).

There is no single definitively robust resolution. It would be wise not to understate these pressures and to maintain a practical level of realism in the goals that are claimed, set or accepted by advocates on the part of participatory process [F].

Ends

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