Public dialogue on science and technology as a new social space for democracy: two UK case studies

Burchell, Kevin and Davies, Sarah (2007) Public dialogue on science and technology as a new social space for democracy: two UK case studies. In: The British Sociological Association (BSA) Annual Conference 2007: Social Connections: Identities, Technologies, Relationships; 12-14 Apr 2007, London, U.K.. (Unpublished)


In the UK public dialogue is championed in a number of policy areas as a new social space in which citizens, policy-makers and experts can share knowledges, values, aspirations and concerns as equal participants. In some cases public dialogue is seen as a democratic means of opening up policy-making to citizens’ voices, while in others it is conceived as an important part of the cultural life of civil society without any formal links to policy-making. In this presentation, we will discuss two case studies of public dialogue – one of each type – with respect to developments in science and technology, and we will attempt to comment on the extent to which such processes can be considered to be new democratic social spaces. In the first case study, Kevin Burchell will discuss the policy-oriented sciencehorizons project (commissioned by the Office of Science and Innovation) and in the second, Sarah Davies will discuss the cultural events that take place at the Dana Centre (designed to host informal dialogue between scientists and publics). Critics have argued that spaces of public dialogue are suffused by power relations through which ‘other’ voices, while increasingly represented, remain silenced. Others have pointed out that, since such spaces are institutionally constituted, public dialogue remains focussed on institutional concerns and agendas with little space for citizen concerns. Further, it is suggested that equality between citizens and experts in such spaces is highly elusive. We reflect on these issues in the context of our case studies, arguing that they are in some respects more traditional in how they negotiate science-society relations than they would suggest, but that they also remain spaces where rules and norms are uncertain and under negotiation.

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