Lessons from deliberative public engagement work: a scoping study

Working and discussion papers
November 2011

In response to tensions and controversies surrounding issues such as genetically modified (GM) crops, so-called Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE) and Foot and Mouth Disease, there has been a significant increase in participatory, deliberative, inclusionary or what we call public engagement processes in issues involving science and technology (S&T), aimed, in part, at increasing public confidence in science decision-making. A variety of organisations have hosted events employing several different techniques – from citizens’ juries to consensus conferences, deliberative panels and multi-criteria mapping.

This working paper identifies and discusses key lessons from relatively recent public engagement processes in both the North and the South. Although people engage in several ways with S&T, making claims using the law, the media, the internet, science festivals and organised activism and protest, among others, our review draws practical lessons from processes in which members of the public are invited to engage with scientists and other professional stakeholders through participatory and deliberative dialogue processes.

This study was compiled based on a review of mainly grey literature, much of which covered public engagement initiatives in S&T in largely industrialised societies. The review also included some studies assessing participatory action research (PAR) in agriculture and rural development in low-income countries.

The background paper begins by placing the current trend towards public engagement in the context of the broader paradigm of the democratisation of science. It draws linkages between the literature on citizen involvement in S&T in developed societies and the body of work on citizen participation in expert-led development programmes and policies in developing societies. Section 3 describes some of the benefits of engagement processes in S&T, and Section 4 identifies and discusses several overlapping lessons from recent public engagement processes in a range of S&T fields. The final section concludes by drawing together some principles for those who are undertaking deliberative public engagement work.