Techno-scientific innovations with an impact on the lives of citizens are increasingly at the centre of strong debates. Issues like medical and agricultural biotechnologies and emergencies related to food such as BSE, have triggered wide public discussion in several European countries, raising concerns in terms of safety, ethical, political economic implications.
More in general, one of the main challenges at all policy levels – local, national and European – seems to be finding innovative ways to couple the increasing need to take decisions on complex, techno-scientific issues with democratic representation and citizens involvement.
The aim of the PPGI Project, promoted by the Lombardia Region together with the Bassetti Foundation (www. fondazionebassetti.org ), has been to test out – for the very first time in Italy – new methods of citizen participation to policy processes regarding complex technoscientific issues. As a test case study, the topic of GMO research was selected as the main focus of panel discussions.
Two participatory meetings with citizens were held within the framework of the PPGI Project. The purpose of the two meetings was to test out methods for a direct and interactive involvement of different stakeholders (such as interests group, consumers associations and member of the general public alongside professional experts, representatives of the business sectors and scientists) on the issue of agricultural biotechnologies.
After a preliminary research phase dedicated to the main participatory methods used at the international level (e.g citizen panels, consensus conference) and their adaptability to the Italian context, two parallel procedures were designed and implemented in March 2004 involving scientists, farmers’ associations, consumers, environmental organisations and two citizen panels selected by age, gender, educational level and geographic area. Members of the first panel were offered brief presentations by selected experts and stakeholders, with an aim to start the discussion on a balanced representation of different points of view. Members of the second panel could, instead, choose from a list of experts and stakeholders those they wanted to consult.
Both citizen panels produced a final consensus report, summarising their indications with regard to decision-making processes about GMOs. All discussions were videotaped upon explicit consent from the participants.
The whole project whose carried out under the supervision of a scientific committee with national and international members. Specific social research tools were used (ex-ante and ex post questionnaires, telephone follow up, discourse analysis) to thoroughly evaluate the activity results.
Relevant effects were observed with respect to learning, participation and effectiveness of decision-making models.
Although the focus of the discussion was strictly defined – should GMOs fields trials in the Lombardia region be allowed? – the discussion touched several more general issues which we summarise below.
A first issue discussed was that of research and its social role. Most of the citizens involved expressed trust and constructive considerations with regard to scientists and their activities. Positive opinions and attitudes emerged, considering research as a value in self and – in particular in this area – as an useful medium to improve safety and control over food circulation.
Particular emphasis was placed also on the information issue. Citizens have underlined the need to be well informed about goals and results of the open field trials. The local authorities, the Region in this case, must design an effective and transparent information campaign focused on transgenic agriculture and field trials sites selected.
During the debates, the risk issue emerged with particular relevance both in terms of human and environment safety. All citizens expressed the need to have sufficient guarantees, firstly by the scientific community, to predict costs and drawbacks of innovation. The definition of these guarantees must be tied up to a careful selection of the experimental sites.
A significant deal of the meeting discussion was dedicated to analyze the decision process connected to the matter of GMOs open field trials. In the opinion of the participants the Region, not the State, must be the main political level at which stage the research activities should be directed. Decision makers should adequately consult the various stakeholders, experts, local politicians and citizens. Particular attention should be devoted to local communities where open field trials will situated. Regional policy level must be strongly connected to the State level, being monitored by competent Scientific Authorities such as ISS (Health National Institute).
Main Findings and Conclusions
The process and content evaluation of the meetings indicated in the first place a high motivation on the part of citizens to be actively involved in the debates on techno-scientific innovations, which confirms the result of recent national and transnational surveys (Eurobarometer, 2003; Bucchi and Neresini, 2004). Specific participatory procedures involving citizens, experts and stakeholders seem capable also in a country like Italy – with scarce tradition of involvement of citizens in policy procedures comparable to other institutional contexts – to promote an open and balance debate, facilitating a more articulate and constructive emergence of positions than traditional consultation methods such as polls.
On the basis of this experimentation, it is possible to formulate some reflections on democratic processes for public participation in policy processes.
Consultations and dialogue among citizens, experts and stakeholders assume particular effectiveness during the first stage of public policy definition. Nevertheless, also in other phases of development (i.e. improvement and evaluation) citizens and diverse social actors suggestions can be usefully taken into account in the policy process.
Using methods of dialogue and participation could also improve decision makers legitimation in the face of citizens, especially in the case of complex subject with a significant impact on local communities.
Of course participatory methods cannot straightforwardly replace traditional democratic decision processes such as those taking place in regional or national Goverments/Parliaments. Rather, they can be seen as complementing instruments which can be used in some cases and with regard to specific issues. However, participatory methods should not be seen as manipulative medium to obtain citizen consensus on already defined policy strategies but rather as open arenas for constructive debates. In this sense, it should be noticed that one of the indications emerging from the project was the need for an independent body or agency to perform and organize such participatory assessment procedures. Citizens, in fact, seem to be quite sceptical when such initiatives are organized by those same institutions which are set to take policy decisions, i.e. regional or national governments.
In this light, it seems plausible to devise the development and institutionalisation of the PPGI project into an independent – yet related to the regional council – agency which can provide advice on the basis of participatory procedures involving citizens, in a way not dissimilar to other similar agencies like the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment.
– M. Bucchi, F. Neresini “Why are People Hostile to Biotechnologies?”, Science, 18 june 2004, 1749.
– Eurobarometer 58.0 (2003), Europeans and Biotechnology in 2002.