The ongoing changes in the scientific-technological world, whose social-territorial impact is highlighted by the dominating globalisation process, are increasingly questioning the unconditioned sustainability of current decision-making procedures, typical of the traditional form of representative democracy characterising democratic States. Within this framework it seems difficult for politics to answer the “opposing requirements for efficiency on the one hand and principles on the other” (1). It is struggling to come to terms with the controversial consequences of scientific innovations affecting modern-day global societies.
It is increasingly difficult to make a distinction between pure and applied science, as well as between expert and non-expert knowledge (2), while the core of scientific knowledge itself is gradually becoming controversial as a consequence of the growing degree of complexity of the issues tackled. For a political-social analysis of the scientific and technological innovation process dynamics it is crucially important to take into particular consideration the uncertain consequences of the developments of these innovations with respect to the daily life of citizens. This is also known as technology deficit i.e. a process as a consequence of which technological applications show both a performance deficit in terms of benefits lower than risks and a democratic deficit having regard to their management (3).
The element of uncertainty, furthermore, is not only related to the possible unforeseen technical-material consequences ensuing from the use of a technology; there is also at the same time uncertainty related to the interaction between values and knowledge (4). During the process of risk assessment, therefore, there are also moral considerations to be made: if there is no positive knowledge about the use of a certain technology, this might limit its implementation for fear of risks that are regarded as not acceptable. Unlike what happened in the past, today it seems more difficult to “mark down as irrational the fears of ordinary people about the risks of technology”, which inevitably leads to a rethinking of the relationship between science and society (5).
In addition and having regard to the growing uncertainty related to the consequences of technological developments, there are also at least two other critical factors at play. The first is the dissemination of veto powers that local communities are in a position to exercise against general interest projects to the extent that they perceive them as a threat to their interest and to their own identity. A second critical factor is then related to the increasing frequency of public policies that are difficult to implement without an active and effective involvement of the relevant beneficiaries. As a consequence it seems increasing difficult, as far as the traditional policy-making process is concerned, to make a distinction between policy-makers and policy-takers (6).
Within a framework of innovations with increasingly uncertain and pervasive consequences, many pundits think that the active involvement of the public sphere cannot be delayed any longer if we want to make as acceptable and shared as possible those social outcomes of the current technical-scientific “permanent revolution” process that are unforeseen and unwanted. The purpose of involving the public is not so much, and not only, related to the need of facing possible future opposition, but rather to guaranteeing the actual application of public policies in the scientific and technological field – be they related to sustainable development or to other actions.
An answer to the critical factors emerging with respect to the public decision-making process as a consequence of the new social challenges from science and technology, is the set of initiatives related to the so-called “deliberative democracy”, in other words to public debate as a basis for functioning democracy. Within this framework, deliberation processes are complementary to representative democracy in the sense that traditional representation and decision-making mechanisms are not sufficient to make sure that in elected forums all the viewpoints of potential stakeholders with their possible concerns are expressed. This means that deliberation experiences are based on the use, within the decision-making process, of the logic of rational and impartial argumentation rather than on the negotiation or aggregation of preferences. They are democratic in the sense that, in theory, they involve anyone who might be affected by the consequence of a certain decision. The prospect of an increasingly widespread and convinced use of the participation democracy procedures within traditional policy-making processes, in an attempt to guarantee the conditions for an open and effective public debate able to produce shared and participated decisions, seems to be a stimulating and significant response to the crisis in the relationship between science, politics and society we referred to at the beginning.
The possible forms of involvement of civil society in the policy-making process, the one related to the set of methods grouped together under the common deliberative label, are the most important, even though deliberative methods include different degrees of intervention from the public. The participation procedures of a deliberative kind are in many cases geared towards a strong interaction between the general public, civil society and policy-makers. This goes beyond the mere unilateral and univocal information “bombardment” of the public; it should give civil society a chance to acquire awareness in its position with respect to a given topic, knowing that it will be taken into consideration by decision-makers (7). Within this framework the measure of the significance of public participation has to do with mutual learning and the actual possibility for exchange within the deliberative arena between politicians, scientists and civil society itself. The importance of the contribution offered by citizens through deliberative participation is shown, for example, also by the kind of questions they raise having regard to the various topics analysed by the deliberation process.
For example a study carried out on the questions raised by deliberative citizens on the subject of food containing GMOs in three countries (Canada, United States and Denmark), actually showed that the public concern is not only related to the risks/benefits for the individual or for society as a whole – even though there are many different and quite complicated views on this -, but rather it raises much more significant and complex issues. These include, for example, the choice of certain technologies as the best possible alternatives among various options, the effect of specific technologies on the environment, on animals and on third world countries. There is also the question of who will control a given technology and whether this will entail limitations to the Government’s power, claiming the right to information and choice and so on.
As mentioned previously, the deliberative methods are actually wide-ranging because they go from Citizens’ Juries, to the better known Consensus Conferences in Denmark, to deliberation polls, to Scenario Workshops, to planning Cells typical of Germany, all the way to the exclusively Brazilian concept of participation Balance Sheet. These experiences are part of socio-cultural situations very different one from the other and are characterised by a different scope as well as by a different application level and topic. In spite of their sometimes significant differences, these experiences have in common their being “deliberative arenas”, in other words places where those directly involved “participate in a structured way to a collective decision-making process based on the use of argumentations” (8). It is worth underlining from the outset that in the experiences under examination the decision-making process is not regarded as a political action typical of direct democracy – as for example referendums– but rather as a consultation and proposition mechanism.
National governments, local institutions, stakeholders and citizens will be called upon, if they think it is necessary over the next few years, to deal with these forms of participation to set in motion effective policy processes in the scientific and technological field.
Notes:(1) Bosetti, G., “Valori e pragmatismo. Disgusto su due fronti”, p. 4, Editoriale, in Reset, Luglio-Agosto, n. 78, 2003.
(2) Einsiedel E., “Citizen voices: public participation on biotechnology”, in Notizie di Politeia, 17, n. 63, pp. 94-104, 2001; Andersen I.E. e Jaeger B., “Scenario workshops and consensus conferences: toward more democratic decision-making”, in Science and Public Policy, 26, n. 5, p. 338, 2003.
(3) Einsiedel, Ibidem, p. 94.
(4) Einsiedel, Ibidem., p. 100.
(5) Bobbio, L., “Le arene deliberative”, in Rivista italiana di politiche pubbliche, 3, p. 16, 2002.
(6) Bobbio, L., Ibidem.
(7) AA.VV. (2000), European Participatory Technology Assessment – Participatory Methods in Technology Assessment and Technology Decision-Making, p. 10 October, report published on the website: http://www.tekno.dk/europta.
(8) Bobbio, Ibidem, p. 7.