WHAT IS A CITIZEN CONFERENCE?



The Western Canadian Citizen Conference on Food Biotechnology will be held at the University of Calgary on March 5th, 6th, and 7th, 1999.

To register for the Conference, email us at: gedesign@ucalgary.ca

Citizen Conferences

The citizens' conference is a process of public inquiry, discussion and recommendation on the societal impacts of science and technology development and use. This form of democratic citizen participation helps to clarify the issues, questions and concerns for and of the general public and introduces perspectives that may coincide with or be different from those held by experts and other traditional stakeholders. Originating in the practice of technology assessment, and motivated by the need for greater citizen involvement in discussions of technological developments or planned policies, these conferences have been widely used in Europe, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and France. The University of Calgary, the National Institute of Nutrition and the Food Biotechnology Communications Network are sponsoring the first citizens' conference in Canada in March 1999, on the topic of food biotechnology.

Process

The key to citizens' conferences is the focused dialogue between the general public and resource people in the field. A panel of 12-15 citizens, chosen after a publicized call for volunteers, participate in intensive preparatory weekends and the three-day conference itself. Their task at the preparatory weekends is to acquire enough knowledge about the topic from personal inquiry and dialogue with experts to formulate a series of questions to be explored at the conference. They also select the experts whom they wish to answer their questions. The conference itself is a public event. There, the questions are put to the resource panel whose expertise covers a broad spectrum including science, the environment, regulations, health and safety, ethics and the economy. The citizen panel retires after the second day of the conference to carefully consider the information they have gathered from all sources and to write a report based upon their original questions. This is presented the final day of the conference. It is then disseminated to government, industry, other stakeholders, the media and the general public as public input into policy decision-making.
Strong media coverage is essential for broad dissemination of the citizen report. To accommodate the geographic realities of the Canadian context, there will also be an interactive website that will track the progress of the citizen panel and the conference stages. Use of information technology and broad media exposure enables participation by the widest possible audience.

Policy Context

The government of Canada, like those of a number of industrial countries, has identified biotechnology as a strategic technology critical to our ability to compete globally. How this technology should be developed, how it is to be regulated, managed or promoted are topics of ongoing public interest and concern. Current policy attention and increased public awareness make this conference very timely.
In August 1998, the federal government announced its renewed Canadian Biotechnology Strategy which includes as one of its key elements, public education and involvement. A new advisory body will guide government direction in this area. As the first effort to directly involve the public in Canada, this citizens' conference on food biotechnology is both a social and a political experiment tailored to our own context. It will be a regional conference, based in Western Canada with national significance. It is supported primarily by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Alberta Agricultural Initiatives.

Rationale For Citizen Participation

A recent editorial in Science posed the question: "Who should sit at the table when science policy is being decided?" The editorial then provides these arguments for a place for lay citizens at the technology table:
"(1) All citizens support science through their tax dollars and experience the profound consequences of science -- both good and bad;
(2) in a democracy, those who experience the consequences of an activity and those who pay for it ordinarily expect a voice in decisions;
(3)scientific leaders have no monopoly on expertise, nor do they have a privileged ethical standpoint for evaluating the social consequences of science and of science policies;
(4) nonscientists already do contribute to science and science policy (e.g., women's organizations have redirected medical research agendas to reduce gender biases);
(5)elite-only approaches are antithecal to the open, vigorous and creative public debate on which democracy, policy-making and science all thrive;
(6) there is a danger that public support for science will erode if other perspectives are excluded."

(Science, 279: 27 February, 1998)

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modified: January 29, 1999