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Right to Science Exemplars: Participatory Decision-Making

The following exemplar demonstrates the steps that governments can take to ensure public participation in decision-making concerning the development and funding of science in accordance with the general human rights principle of participatory decision-making.

Public participation in science and technology decision-making

Participatory governance the idea that people should be able to participate in the decision-making processes directly affecting them is one of the foundational principles of international human rights law. In accordance with this principle, the Danish government has, over the past 20 years, convened more than 20 consensus conferences. Organized by the Danish Board of Technology, these conferences represent a unique mechanism for stimulating public debate and informing science and technology (S&T) policy. Past conferences have addressed issues ranging from air pollution and sustainable agriculture to genetic engineering and human reproduction.

When organizing a conference, the Board of Technology first chooses an appropriate topic  one that is intermediate in complexity and scope, has significant societal implications, and is scheduled to be addressed in upcoming Parliamentary deliberations. After advertising in local newspapers, the Board selects a lay panel of approximately 15 participants who are demographically representative and have no training or vested interests in the issue. After two weekends of preparation during which they review and discuss background reading with each other and with a panel of experts, the panel prepares a report that it then presents, alongside expert testimony and question-and-answer sessions, at a conference that is open to the wider public. The panel report reflects the questions and concerns of panel members regarding the particular topic, as well as points of consensus reached by the panel as a whole.

The final conferences are held in the Parliament building and attended by members of the press, Parliament, and public. They attract national media attention, and the Board publicizes the lay panels conclusions by organizing local debates and distributing leaflets and videos. The panels reports, unaffected by political or financial ties to the issue, reflect the attitudes and priorities of society at large, concerned less with, for example, pecuniary issues and more with the social and ethical implications of the topic. A 1989 consensus conference on advances in genetic science led to legislation restricting genetic screening by employers and insurance providers. Others have inspired or affected legislation on genetic modification and food irradiation. In addition to requesting legislation, past reports have advised further research and recommended changes in education or communication practices.

Denmarks use of consensus conferences to inform policymaking has also led to an increased awareness and understanding of S&T issues among the Danish public. Indeed, a survey conducted in the 1990s found that Danish citizens were better informed about biotechnology and more supportive of national biotechnology policy than citizens elsewhere in Europe. The Danish model has prompted similar efforts in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.