In the last twenty years scientific research and technological innovations have been abruptly accelerating, at the same time of important political and social changes (as the end of the bipolar balance and the increasing globalisation of economy): this contributed to the complexity of the relation between three of the most important agents of our society ( public, science and politics). The relationship between citizens, scientific institutions and institutions of traditional democracy is still under discussion and seems to be characterized by issues of uncertainty and inequality.
The former characterizes first of all political institutions that have to face the necessity of giving rules to a scientific Knowledge whose effects on customs and often on the values of a community show more and more potentially overwhelming (biotechnologies are the most evident example, from GMO to experiments on embryos).
But uncertainty characterizes also scientific knowledge and that means incapacity to give the public a clear image of the research’s status, of its consequences and chances. The lack of agreement inside the scientific community (the so-called “wars of science”) conveys a fragmentary image of the scientific community that is at odds with the traditional idea of science as “bearer of truth” and that indeed creates confusion and uncertainty in front of the new challenges of techno-scientific research.
Failing suitable answers, uncertainty leads to the perception of our society as if it was full of inequalities.
The decision-taking process seems more and more a privilege of a limited group of politicians (democratically elected) and experts ( bearer of knowledge that others -the non-expert-have not), while the effects of these choices affect the whole community.
We have to consider this situation when we explain some factors as the need for more participation to the decision-making process and to the debate shown by several citizens’ associations, the review in academic institution of the Public Understanding of Science’s principles and the discussion on themes such as “technological democracy” and “hybrid forum”, and finally the public institution’s attempt to create new ways to increase public participation to the debate on technosciences.
In this field nowadays the examples in Europe are a lot, from English “citizens’ foresight” and “citizens’ forum” to Plannungszellen developed in Germany, to the Danish pattern of the “Consensus conference”.
This last practice, partly because of the high grade of public participation (the citizens’ panel that takes part to the meeting sets the agenda and the main themes and leads the final debate), partly because of its structure, that makes it adaptable to different contexts, is meeting with success to the point that it has been used in several European and Extra-european countries.
Within these discussion spaces, these “hybrid forum” as they are often called, the participants have a double role: from one side, as “unskilled” they are bearers of a knowledge that, even if not expert, is the result of a daily and constant relation with more and more invasive technologies ( telecommunications, GMO, etc.). From the other side, as citizens, they ask for a more active role, for an enlarged decision taking committee traditionally composed by elected representatives, putting the representative method together with forms of participative and deliberative democracy.
With its twofold process of “exploration of possible worlds” and “enlargement of the committee”, we can see in the experiment of participatory Technology Assessment (pTA) a challenge turned more to politics and to the role of the decision takers in our democracies, than to science and to the role of scientists.
Citizens’ uncertainties and worries regard more the use and abuse of the scientific discoveries than the new frontiers of science (in which, instead, they seem to have hopes that could still reveal somehow illusory).
To politics they ask a stance but also a flexibility that is more and more difficult to achieve for the traditional pattern based on scientific expertise and representative democracy. In conclusion, we can say that in this moment, pTA practices are one of the possible tools to promote the debate and to increase citizens’ participation. However, only in the future we will be able to assess which are the benefits of this method and who are the ones that benefit more.