Biosicherheit & Nachhaltigkeit




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Table of contents:  A review of the Danish, Dutch and UK approaches to this special form of technology assessment
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4. Organization of a consensus conference

4.1 Some general considerations

This section deals with important reasons why the organization and management of a consensus conference is a larger and far more complex venture than the organization of a conventional conference.

The first delicate matter is the choice of date and venue of the consensus conference. The consensus conference should take place when the Parliament is in session, since it is an instrument to inform policy- and decision-makers about the sorts of concerns that the public bring to socially sensitive scientific issues. The consensus conference is likely to get more attention in the political as well as public arena if parliamentarians are directly involved in it. As has been shown in section 3.1, the DBT has up to now been quite successful in achieving this difficult aim by organizing consensus conferences shortly before parliamentarians debate and subsequently decide on such issues. Furthermore, consensus conferences ought to be held at a time when no other major competing events are taking place, so as to ensure the highest possible media attention for the successful dissemination of the lay panel's consensus report among all interested parties and the general public.

The same criteria apply to the choice of venue for the consensus conference. The venue should be as central and as close to the Houses of Parliament as possible. The organizers of the Dutch public debate on genetic engineering of animals believe that one reason for the unsatisfactory media response to their consensus conference was the choice of a regional venue (see section 3.2, above).

The lay panel's key function in raising questions, choosing experts for answering these questions and writing the final document makes the long term planning of the conference complicated. The lay panel has to be taught the basic knowledge and given the relevant information about the subject under consideration. For this reason, it is brought together for two preparatory weekends before the consensus conference. A professional group facilitator is engaged to guide the lay panel, and experts are invited to explain relevant theory and practise. The chairperson of the conference should attend at least one of the preparatory weekends in order to help the lay panel to develop the skill of interrogating experts at the conference.

The questions to be answered and discussed by the experts at the conference are put together by the lay panel - and not by the organizers of the conference - during the second preparatory weekend, which takes place only about four weeks prior to the consensus conference. The experts then have to send their answers back to the organizers within these four weeks. Another difficulty is the late selection of the experts for the consensus conference. The organizers put together a list of the names of a wide variety of recognized experts within the chosen subject area. These experts have all agreed in principle to give evidence and answer questions. As the final selection of experts is not done until the second preparatory weekend, the selected experts cannot be informed about their appointment earlier than approximately four weeks before the conference. Also, the lay panel may want to appoint experts that do not appear on the organizers' list.

The steering committee of the consensus conference has a large area of responsibility and should be seen as a planning group. The consensus conference is not only a relatively recent initiative, it is also relatively novel. Consequently, it requires extra and thorough reflection and explanation. The task of the steering committee is not only to oversee the project management, but to discuss and decide on conceptual and methodological aspects of the initiative. This makes it necessary for the members of the steering committee to meet fairly often, - say, every four to six weeks.

An important criterion for the success of the consensus conference is the amount of attention it gets from the general public and from interested parties. It is essential that the organizers of a consensus conference develop an effective publicity strategy which goes beyond the usual task of press offices. Apart from promoting the institutions that fund and organize the consensus conference as institutions working to further greater public understanding of science and technology, the publicity strategy aims to contribute to the success of the consensus conference by stimulating public interest and involvement in the topic of the conference.

4.2 Organization of the UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology

The UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology is organized between the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC, formerly the AFRC) and the Science Museum, London, on the basis that the BBSRC is funding and the Science Museum is organizing and managing the conference. The BBSRC can be seen as an interested party within the field of plant biotechnology, because it supports a great deal of biotechnological research and development. It was therefore agreed that the BBSRC should delegate the organization of the consensus conference to a genuinely independent agency. The Science Museum does not have any specific involvement in biotechnological research and development; and its status as a publicly funded agency with responsibility of promoting greater public understanding of science enables it to discharge the role of consensus conference organizer without compromise.

The Science Museum has appointed a one year full time project manager whose task is to oversee the successful implementation of the consensus conference. The project manager is acquainted with life science, has substantial organizational and budget management experience and is also familiar with media. The steering committee's principal functions are: first, to give the conference credibility by ensuring competent and impartial implementation of the initiative; second, to ensure that appropriate decisions are taken concerning the organization and implementation of the conference; and third, to assist in the clarification of issues and the identification of experts. The criteria for appointment of steering committee members are as follows. They should be drawn from a wide range of relevant professional backgrounds; they should be recognized authorities in their particular fields; and they should be able to give a significant amount of time to the initiative by regular attendance at up to 6 bi-monthly meetings, each of one half day's duration.

The steering committee is chaired by Professor John Duran't, Head of Science Communication Division of the Science Museum, London, and comprises the director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), representing governmental interests, the research director of Zeneca Seeds UK, representing industrial producer interests, a member of the Consumers' Association, representing consumer interests, the former editor of New Scientist, representing the media, and a reader in social psychology. The chairperson of the consensus conference should be a well known and widely recognized person, preferably from within the media arena, and with no particular interest in the subject area. Shelhe will have to ensure that the lay panel can fulfil its difficult task during the consensus conference without either being dominated by the expert panel or hindered by the audience.

The lay panel's supervisor (or professional facilitator) has the very important task of controlling the strong group process among the lay people. The lay panel members have to come to terms with the relevant issues of the subject under consideration within a short period of time. They want to give their best and work hard because they are aware that they will be at the centre of interest during the consensus conference. This pressure can be stressful for some of the lay people. The supervisor, e.g. a group psychologist, ensures that the lay people work as a team and that all members can contribute effectively and equally to this team work.

The publicity strategy has been organized as follows. The BBSRC press office takes responsibility for explaining why it has decided to fund the consensus conference on plant biotechnology and for clarifying its role in relation to the Science Museum. The Science Museum press office takes responsibility for developing and implementing the media strategy for the consensus conference.

The broad outlines of the media strategy have been agreed between the Science Museum and the BBSRC. The publicity strategy aims to generate and sustain media interest in the consensus conference from the time at which the running of the consensus conference first was announced, through to the dissemination of the consensus conference report. So far, the planned consensus conference on plant biotechnology has been reported in several newspapers and magazines and broadcasted on BBC world service. The UK consensus conference has already been mentioned and discussed in two broadcasts and a number of other radio- and television reports are being negotiated.

The organization of the UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology comprises five main stages: First, basic organization (January 1993 - April 1994); second, recruitment of lay panel and preliminary selection of experts (May 1994 - June 1994); third, preparation of lay panel by means of initial information pack and participation in training weekends (August 1994 - October 1994); fourth, the consensus conference itself (November 1994); and fifth, dissemination of consensus conference final report and evaluation (from December 1994 onwards).


December 1992 Initial contacts between AFRC and Science Museum on behalf of consensus conferences
Jan-Apr 1993 First planning meeting, draft proposal for organization of consensus conference
May 1993 Second planning meeting with Danish and Dutch experts
August 1993 Third planning meeting, draft budget
November 1993 Announcement of UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology
December 1993 Signing of contract between AFRC and Science Museum, fourth planning meeting
January 1994 Advertising for post of project manager
February 1994 Appointment of project manager
March 1994 Appointment of steering committee members
April 1994 Date and venue of conference, date and venue of preparatory weekends
May 1994 Advertising for lay panel, press conference
June 1994 Selection of lay panel, appointment of chairperson of conference, appointment of supervisor of lay panel, expert list
August 1994 First information pack for lay panel
Sept-Oct 1994 Preparatory weekends, selection of questions for conference, selection of experts for conference
November 1994 Consensus conference
December 1994 Dissemination of final report, start evaluation

One of the aims of the UK national consensus conference is to test the usefulness of this initiative for active participation of the public in the assessment of scientific and technological subjects. An evaluation programme is being developed which comprises three different levels of assessment: evaluation of the success of consensus conference in its own terms; evaluation of the success of the consensus conference in independent terms; and an international, comparative assessment of the UK and other European consensus conference initiatives.

The success of the consensus conference in its own terms will be assessed by monitoring the process and the management, especially by evaluating the effectiveness. of component parts of the organization of the conference. The success of the conference in independent terms will be evaluated: first, by assessing the impact of this initiative on principal actors, principal target audiences and on the general public; second, by assessing the perceived usefulness of this dialogue model by funding agencies, academia, industry, consumer organizations, policy makers, media, etc; and third, by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the consensus conference as a special form of technology assessment. The evaluation of the UK national consensus conference on plant biotechnology in comparison with the Danish and the Dutch consensus conferences has to be done by defining objective comparators.

© Copyright Zentrum BATS: Kontakt Legal Advisor: Advokatur Prudentia-Law Veröffentlichungsdatum: 1994-04-02

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