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
Last Document: 4.  Organization
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5. Recommendations for proposed Swiss national consensus conference

This section provides some recommendations with respect to the proposal to convene a Swiss national consensus conference.

In 1991, the Swiss Science Council (SWR), the advisory board for science policy of the Swiss Executive Federal Council, was commissioned to carry out a preliminary programme for technology assessment within the legisl ative period of 1992-1995 (SWR 1992)2. The aim of this scheme, for which a budget of approx. SFr4.7 million was approved, is to set the basis for a future institutionalization of TA and to start testing candidate TA methods for usefulness in the Swiss national context. It comprises the establishment of a documentation service in connection with foreign TA offices, the drawing up of an inventory of already existing national TA activities and experts, and finally the trialling of specific TA initiatives. These exploratory studies should include all areas of national research and technology development programmes, with special emphasis on the six priority programmes (SPP). So far seven such studies have been started in close connection with the different priority programmes.

One of the priority programmes, the SPP Biotechnology, went a step further with the founding of its own "Agency for Biosafety Research and Assessment of Technology Impacts of the Swiss Priority Programme Biotechnolgy" (BATS), whose three full time members started their activities in January 1993 in Basel. Both the SWR and BATS are currently considering the possibility of running a consensus conference as part of their TA programmes.

Following the previous reflections about the Danish, Dutch and UK consensus conferences in this report it is clear that first of all one ought to consider carefully whether the Swiss national context is suitable for the successful implementation of a consensus conference. Compared to, for example, the Danish population the Swiss population is extremely heterogeneous despite its similarly small size. One of the most obvious and striking characteristics of Switzerland is its cultural diversity with German (63.6%) as majority and French (19.2%), Italian (7.6%) and Rumansh (0.6%) as minority languages. In the western part of Switzerland, where French is the official language and the cultural context was partly shaped by long-standing tension between liberal tendencies brought out by Calvin's Protestant Church and the conservatism of the central and south-eastern cantons, people are politically more progressive and probably more likely to approve of new scientific and technological innovations than are the populations of the mainly Roman Catholic central and southern cantons, where cultural and political traditionalism prevail.

2This mandate is based on the Message of 9.1.1991 of the Swiss Executive Federal Council on the advancement of scientific research in the legislative period of 1992-1995, on the Swiss Federal Act of 30.9.1991 on the funding of the priority programmes (SPP), and on the guidelines of the Head of the Federal Department of Inner Affairs.

Heterogeneity also manifests itself in the political structure, which is based on shared sovereignty. Switzerland is a confederacy of 26 cantons, each of which has its own Cantonal Constitution and hence maintains a high degree of sovereignty. This can be seen, for example, in the independence of each canton in matters of education (from primary school through to universities). The superordinate Federal Constitution and the Federal acts of Parliament regulate all matters of joint national interest.

Swiss democracy is based on two fundamental principles, namely separation of powers and consensus, two phenomena that can be seen in the political discourse and public opinion formation. On the level of the executive the four big parties share power and constitute the Federal Executive Council. On the level of the legislature the Parliament and the people share power as follows. The Parliament is competent to enact laws on the grounds of the Federal Constitution; whereas the Swiss people have the right to decide on all changes to the Federal Constitution proposed by Parliament (compulsory referendum on Federal Constitution), and the right to change the Federal Constitution by means of 100,000 signatures collected within a limited time (facultative initiative on Federal Constitution). However, the Swiss people cannot decide on acts of Parliament unless at least 50,000 citizens demonstrate their wish to do so by signature (facultative referendum on federal laws).

Following this rough characterization of the Swiss national context, a possible organization of consensus conferences seems to be definitely possible and worthwhile, even though it may be rather more complex than in Denmark. The fact that the Swiss population is so heterogeneous would make it most difficult to select a lay panel of about 15 citizens to be representative of the entire Swiss population. Even though we have argued above (section 3.4, above) that the lay panel should not be seen as representative of the entire population due to the mode of selection, the lay people should at least roughly represent the population with respect to age, gender, area of residence, occupation and level of education so as to give the lay panel basic credibility.

Considering the cultural diversity of Switzerland we propose that at least three parallel consensus conferences should be held on the same subject and at the same time but at different places, namely in the western (e.g. Lausanne), northern (e.g. Berne) and southern (e.g. Lugano) part of Switzerland. Apart from the excellent possibility that this arrangement would create to compare the processes and outcomes of the three conferences in terms of evaluating this special form of technology assessment, this threefold performance of a consensus conference would provide policy- and decision-makers with some important information about perception(s) of a socially sensitive scientific subject among different sections of the Swiss population.

Our second recommendation deals with the political system of Switzerland. Since the Swiss have a say in changes to the Federal Constitution and to some of the acts of Parliament, one can rightly argue - as was done above - that the notion of reaching consensus is already part of the political and cultural life. This being the case, it appears not to make sense to hold a consensus conference shortly before a referendum on the Federal Constitution. However, it could be extremely helpful to run a consensus conference during the long parliamentary process of consulting various interested (governmental and non-governmental) bodies for comments on the proposed changes to the Federal Constitution, or before an act of Parliament on behalf of a scientific or technological subject. This would give Members of Parliament (additional) information about prevailing public perceptions about, and attitudes towards such an issue. If the timing of the consensus conference were correct it would even allow Members of Parliament to make amendments to the discussed changes of the Federal Constitution or act of Parliament. This way, the possibility of a vote against the proposed change of the Federal Constitution or the possibility of a facultative referendum in case of an act of Parliament could be reduced and hence the process of policy-making speeded up.

When it comes to practical aspects of a proposed Swiss consensus conferences, we suggest that the following points ought to be considered carefully. First, the planning stage of a consensus conference takes a rather long time and needs intensive treatment. If a consensus conference is organized for the first time and by an organization which has not much experience in setting up ventures of such complexity then up to one year should be allowed to thoroughly discuss the aims and set the agenda for the conference and to make preliminary investigations. In the present Swiss context this could mean that in the remaining time of the current legislative period of 1992-1995 the concept of a Swiss consensus conference would be elaborated and a proposal for running one submitted on behalf of the TA programme for the next legislative period.

During this planning stage a budget would have to be drafted and a financial source sought. Here, it has to be mentioned that the budget for a consensus conference is high (see chapter 3, above); in the Swiss situation it may well exceed SR220,000 (= c. £ 100,000). If three parallel consensus conferences were to be organized, as suggested above, the budgets for each conference could be expected to be lower.

The responsibility for the organization of the consensus conference should be delegated to an institution or organization which has no special interest in the subject area and hence could lend this initiative credibility. The actual organization and management might take another eight months and might require one or preferably two project managers. A planning group would have to discuss and decide on all relevant conceptual and methodological aspects and oversee the management. Special attention would have to be given to the publicity strategy and its implementation, as the responses of the media to consensus conferences are an important measure of the conferences' success. For further general consideration with respect to the organization of a consensus conference, please see section 4.1, above.

Finally, one would also have to decide how to evaluate a Swiss consensus conference and extra personnel, time and money would have to be sought.

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

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