Last week, I spent a couple of days at The Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in France, a symbolic venue for a discussion of the place for science and technology  in public debate.  Described by UNESCO World Heritage as “the first instance of a factory being built with the same care and concern for architectural quality as a palace or an important religious building”, the saltworks were one of the first spaces designed with a particular technology in mind – the production of salt. It was a stunning setting for debating the future public space for scientific and technological developments.

The meeting was a summer school for about 45 French ‘future leaders’ from the public and the private sectors.  Organised by the Institut des Hautes Études pour la Science et la Technologie (IHEST), as part of a yearlong training on science-society relationships, the delegates were asked to examine the place of science in the debates that unfold in the public sphere. I spoke at a session on international experiences of public debates around nanotechnology, alongside Jamey Wetmore from the US and Rinie van Est from the Netherlands. Jamey, along with a couple of colleagues, wrote a series of blogposts on the discussion.

The Royal Society is intrinsically bound up in the history of these debates in the UK. The Society’s 2004 report recommended a model for the governance of nanotechnology in which the government would engage directly with the public. In response, the government set up a Nanotechnology Engagement Group in 2005, which organised a series of public dialogue exercises.  (The group’s final report from 2007 is a detailed account of how this played out.)

But some critics felt that one-off engagement exercises do not provide the public with enough space to make a substantive contribution to policy-making in this area. As the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report on nanotechnology put it, we need a model that includes “continual social intelligence gathering and the provision on ongoing opportunities for public and expert reflection and debate”.

But what would continuous interaction look like? This was a question that Rinie van Est tried to answer in his discussion of the Rathenau Institute’s work. In addition to organising exercises or debates, the Institute attempted to  ‘seduce’  people into networks of continual public debate. These networks include the various parts of the media, politicians & wider publics and interested groups – from policymakers to NGOs and lobbying organisations.

The French National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) had a recent series of nanotechnology debates disrupted by protestors, and so many of the questions from the audience concentrated on how to create a safe space for dialogue exercises in this difficult national context. (An assessment of the exercise is available here.)

But what stuck with me was the term ’seduction’ in Rinie’s speech. Sitting at the interface of policymakers, scientists and the public, the Royal Society is engaged with these groups. The challenge he sets us is to become architects of this interaction, creating communities interested enough to engage regularly with a particular issue – a kind of everyday engagement.

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