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Technikfolgen Risikoanalyse
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Table of contents: A review of the Danish, Dutch and UK approaches to this special form of technology assessment
Last Document: 1. Introduction
Next Document: 3. Technology Assessment

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1.1 Field trials
Table of Contents
Foods derived from genetically modified organisms and detection methods
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1.3 Detection methods

2. The Consensus conference

2.1 Definition

A consensus conference is a forum in which a group of lay people put questions about a scientific or technological subject of controversial political and social interest to experts, listen to the experts' answers, then reach a consensus about this subject and finally report their findings at a press conference.

2.2 Characterization

The lay panel is the main actor in the consensus conference. It decides on all important aspects of the conference, including: choosing an expert panel; asking the key questions about the subject under consideration; and reaching consensus in a final document. The lay panel consists of between ten and twenty people who are selected by the organizers of the conference through advertisements in national andlor local newspapers and optionally through radio advertisements on the basis of written application. They should roughly represent the population with respect to age, gender, area of residence, occupation and level of education. Furthermore, they should have no subject-specific knowledge, yet share a general interest in the ethical, moral and social dimensions of science and technology.

The lay panel is faced with a considerable challenge. lt must work effectively through two preparatory weekends and the final consensus conference (see below); and it must come to grips with ideas and issues most of which will be completely unfamiliar to it at the outset. Apart from putting relevant questions to experts during the second preparatory weekend, the lay panel must acquire the skills of working as a team at the consensus conference and of interrogating an expert panel. For these reasons, the lay panel is supervised by a professional facilitator from the beginning of the first preparatory weekend through to the press conference at the end of the consensus conference. The professional facilitator's principal tasks are: first, to overview the group process, and especially to ensure that all members of the lay panel have an equal opportunity to contribute towards the group's task; and second, where necessary to resolve potentially disruptive conflicts.

The subject of a consensus conference should be 'of current interest, require expert knowledge, be well defined and involve unresolved issues as regards new technology' (L. Hansen 1992). Prior to the actual conference, the lay people are taught thoroughly so as to enable them to detect relevant issues in the subject area, to raise important questions for the conference and to understand expert dialogue. The consensus conference steering committee (see below) draws a map of all relevant issues related to the subject, based on written or oral contributions from a broad variety of experts and representatives of interest groups, and then sends this summary together with some basic articles about the subject to all members of the lay panel. Thereafter, the lay people are invited to two preparatory weekends, which take place about nine and four weeks before the conference.

At the first preparatory weekend the organizers tell the lay people why the subject under consideration has been chosen and they describe the aims of the consensus conference. Then the lay people are taught any relevant basic theory and informed about existing and planned applications in the relevant field. At this early stage, the lay panel starts to outline key topics of interest. In addition, it may wish to request that expert informati on or advice on particular issues be made available at the second preparatory weekend. The raising of key issues for the conference and calling for further expert information requires the overall agreement of the lay panel, and it may be regarded as the "first consensus" of the consensus conference initiative.

During the second preparatory weekend the lay people select between five and ten key questions to which they wish to obtain answers, and they identify the particular experts to whom these questions are to be put. The questions are sent out by post, and the experts' answers are received before the start of the consensus conference itself. This important process of identifying key questions and key experts again requires the overall agreement of the lay panel, and it may be regarded as the "second consensus" of the consensus conference initiative.

Experts are either professional people who are directly involved in the subject area of the consensus conference, or else they are people who are known to have particular ethical, legal or political points of view on the subject area and who may or may not also be members of relevant interest groups such as consumer, environmental or religious organizations. The steering committee (see below) provides a list of recognized experts who have previously agreed to be part of the expert panel. The lay panel can then choose between ten and twenty experts out of this list and/or alternatively call for other experts.

The consensus conference lasts three or four days. It usually takes place over a weekend (Friday to Sunday) and it is organized as follows. On the first day, each selected expert presents a summary of his/her written answers to the questions of the lay panel. Some experts have been asked to answer only some of the questions, depending on their expertise. The lay panel discusses the answers and may put additional questions if it wishes. At the end of the day, the lay panel withdraws in order to put together all outstanding questions and to discuss any further points which need clarification. Members of the audience are invited to hand in written questions to the lay panel for consideration.

On the second day of the conference, the expert panel is given the opportunity to answer the remaining questions of the lay panel. The audience is also given the chance to ask questions. In the afternoon, the lay panel starts to negotiate a consensus about the subject under consideration behind closed doors. Throughout that evening and (frequently) the greater part of the night the lay panel compiles its consensus report (final document) with the help of secretaries. The report should summarize the written and verbal evidence presented by the expert panel, and - most important - it should set out the lay panel's assessment of the subject with particular emphasis on any relevant ethical, legal and social aspects. This process of report writing represents the "third consensus" of the consensus conference initiative.

The consensus reached by the lay panel need not involve overall approval or disapproval of the subject under consideration. More probably, the consensus will embrace agreement on those aspects of the subject of which the lay panel approves and those aspects which it disapproves, or of which it maintains a sceptical or critical attitude. Moreover, the report may suggest the need for further research in particular parts of the subject area, and it may also make practical recommendations to decision-makers concerning appropriate policy-making or regulation in the subject area.

On the morning of the third day the lay panel presents its consensus report to all participants at a press conference. The expert panel is given the opportunity to correct any factual errors that may be contained in the report but it is not permitted to comment on the overall verdict of the lay panel. Thereafter, all consensus conference participants enter into a discussion of the consensus report. Members of Parliament may contribute to the political dimension of the debate. Journalists are invited to interview members of the different participating parties, including any lay panel members who may be willing to be interviewed.

If the consensus conference is held over four days, the final document is written on the third day rather than during the night of the second day, and the press conference is held on the fourth day.

The task of the chairperson of the consensus conference is to ensure that all participants are given enough opportunity to fulfil their tasks and that the conference as a whole goes smoothly. Helshe is especially responsible for making sure that the lay panel's needs are met and that the expert panel does not dominate the proceedings of the conference. The chairperson has to be well informed about the consensus conference and should therefore either be a member of the steering committee (see below) or else be the professional facilitator of the lay panel.

After the consensus conference, the organizers publish a report, which contains the lay panel's final document and information about the concept of a consensus conference, and disseminate it among Members of Parliament, media people, interest groups and -equally important- among the general public.

The organizers of the consensus conference comprise one (or more) full time project manager(s), a steering committee or planning group and - optionally - an evaluator. The project manager is the executive of the steering committee and has overall responsibility to the committee for the successful completion of the consensus conference. The steering committee comprises around seven members drawn from a wide range of relevant interest groups. Its main task is to establish the credibility of the consensus conference by ensuring that it is conducted competently and impartially.

© Copyright Agency BATS: Contact Legal Advisor: Advokatur Prudentia-Law Date of publishing: 1994-04-02

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