‘Focusing’ on public opinion
Since 2016, TA-SWISS and Science et Cité have been conducting their ‘Focus’ series – one-day participative events held in Bern. The events are structured as moderated workshops and plenary sessions in which interested persons from the general public discuss various aspects of a new technology and its impact; they also formulate their hopes and concerns related to the development and prepare questions and recommendations for the political sphere. Upon conclusion of a Focus event, a publication is issued with a summary of the expert input from the workshops as well as a general, not necessarily representative report on the participants’ considerations, opinions and discussions.
Within the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences a+, TA-SWISS is responsible for participatory technology assessment. In several European countries, participatory projects are a key component in political advising on scientific and technical matters. These projects provide a platform for an informal but nonetheless ‘well-informed’ section of the general public to express their opinions, assessments and concerns regarding a technological development; as such, the participants assume an advisory role in the social discourse on new technologies. The results of these participatory projects are then passed on to political decision-makers – for instance, in the form of citizen recommendations.
In addition to expert studies on specific technological developments, TA-SWISS has long had various other methods to ensure public participation in its standard toolkit. In this regard, the Foundation is viewed throughout Europe as an exemplary leader and learning partner for this type of work. TA-SWISS developed the a+ strategic priority in collaboration with the Foundation Science et Cité, which itself has considerable experience in dealing with issues that arise at the intersection between science, technology and the greater population.
International participatory TA projects
TA-SWISS has taken part in various international projects on participatory technology assessment:
- Surveillance, Privacy and Security (SurPRISE): a discussion forum on security technologies, surveillance and the private sphere
- Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment (PACITA) - Ageing Society: a stakeholder workshop on the opportunities and risks when using assistive technology in caring for the elderly
- Citizen and Multi-Actor Consultation on Horizon 2020 (CIMULACT): a citizens’ forum on how to fund European research projects
- World Wide Views on Global Warming (WWViews): an international citizen-based project on climate policy
Predecessors to the Focus event series: PubliForum and publifocus
Since its establishment, one of the core activities at TA-SWISS have been the participatory TA events. In 1998, TA-SWISS, then named Programme for Technology Assessment of the Swiss Science Council , conducted its first ‘PubliForum’. The topic was electricity and society, and the methodological model for the event was the consensus conference developed in Denmark; for the Swiss context, the criteria of multilingualism was added to the model. In an initial step, TA-SWISS compiled a fact sheet with basic information on Switzerland’s energy supply and the related challenges. Then, nearly 30 citizens were selected at random to be part of a group whose demographic diversity mirrored that of the Swiss population as well as possible. This citizens’ panel met on two weekends during which the participants used the fact sheet to agree on the questions that should be asked and then to select the experts who would answer the questions. The actual PubliForum then took place over a four-day weekend: after the questions were discussed at length with the experts and in the citizens’ panel, the latter wrote a report presenting their views on the issues at hand and formulated recommendations for the attention of political decision-makers. The report was published at the end of the event.
A second PubliForum took place in June 1999 on the topic of gene manipulation and food, a third was held in November 2000 on organ transplantation and a fourth in January 2004 on human research. The events generated a large echo in the media and political sphere. For instance, the results of the PubliForum on organ transplantation was influential in communication regarding the Federal Act on the Transplantation of Organs, Tissues and Cells.
The PubliForum method, however, proved to be extremely demanding, especially for participants on the citizens’ panel. As a result, TA-SWISS developed the more streamlined publifocus model. Here, too, it was important to include citizens from all language regions of Switzerland and to ensure that various age groups, genders and professions were represented. Although the discussions with experts took place on a single evening, at least three separate events were held for groups in German-, French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland. The specialists were selected by TA-SWISS, which was also in charge of editing the final report with a summary of the discussions. By simplifying the method and focusing on citizen discussions and views, the complexity of the PubliForum model could be reduced while nonetheless retaining its essential features. Today, TA‑SWISS Foundation concentrates on conducting the Focus events, a format that was developed together with the Foundation Science et Cité.