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Knight Ridder Newspapers

August 5, 2003

Scientists Debate Value of Citizens' Advisory Panels

By Robert S. Boyd

WASHINGTON - Scientists perform many wonders, but sometimes
they scare the dickens out of people. Genetic tinkering,
radioactive nuclear waste, cloning, embryonic stem cells,
robots that reproduce themselves and other high-tech
developments have stirred widespread distrust and alarm.

To address such fears, the National Science Foundation, an
arm of the federal government, is experimenting with a
system of citizens' advisory panels that it hopes can help
head off future eruptions. The panels consider the ethical,
social and practical implications of new technologies and
recommend policies that might reduce misunderstanding and
obstruction.

For example, the worldwide uproar over genetically modified
foods - crops whose genes have been artificially altered -
has wrecked foreign markets for some American products.
Resistance to so-called "Frankenfoods" also is spreading in
the United States. Billions of dollars are at stake.

"We don't want another backlash like the one over
genetically modified foods," said Jane Macoubrie, the leader
of the NSF project at North Carolina State University in
Raleigh. "Current practices are producing a hostile public
and decreasing trust in government and science. Citizens
perceive technology as out of control."

Each panel consists of 15 nonexpert volunteers who spend
three months studying a particular controversy. They read
background materials, question authorities representing
various points of view, debate among themselves and try to
reach a consensus. Finally they write a report offering
their advice on the issue to policy-makers such as state
governors and members of Congress.

The first of these advisory panels recommended, among other
things, that the government tighten regulations for growing
genetically modified foods and require the products to be
labeled clearly, so shoppers could choose to avoid them.

Some European countries require such foods to be labeled.
Canada is considering a voluntary system. The U.S. Food &
Drug Administration so far has declined to require labeling.

At a hearing before the House of Representatives Science
Committee in April, Langdon Winner, a political scientist at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said
citizens' panels would "establish a voice for ordinary
folks." He urged Congress to "to create ways in which small
panels of ordinary, disinterested citizens, selected in much
the way that we now choose juries, (can) be assembled to
examine important societal issues."

The House passed a bill in May directing the government to
seek the public's advice on nanotechnology, the
fast-developing science of the extremely small.

The bill, which hasn't passed the Senate, is a response to
fears roused by such books as "Prey," a science-fiction
thriller by Michael Crichton in which murderous "nanorobots"
run amok.

"Why not include the public in deliberations about
nanotechnolgy early on in the process, rather than after the
products reach the market?" Winner asked.

Macoubrie's group conducted two preliminary "Citizens
Technology Forums," as they were formally called, last year.
Six more are under way at North Carolina State and a
nationwide trial is planned for next year.

For the first conference, panelists met face-to-face. The
others are being conducted mostly over the Internet, a novel
use of high technology to counter fears about high
technology.

"Citizens, scientists and policy makers are all dissatisfied
with the status quo," Macoubrie, a specialist in
communications theory, said in a telephone interview.
"Citizens are afraid. Scientists think uninformed citizens
are incompetent to comment on technology. Policy makers are
besieged on all sides. Everybody sees a problem. No one is
happy."

So the NSF asked North Carolina State to devise a process
that would minimize these problems by giving citizens
unbiased, factual information on which to make sound
decisions. It's modeled after a similar process that's been
used in Denmark for 15 years.

"Once people have knowledge they get over their fears,"
Macoubrie said.

Patrick Hamlett, the director of the Program on Science,
Technology & Society at North Carolina State, said consensus
conferences were far different from hired pollsters
telephoning people at dinnertime, or from political focus
groups, which spend a couple of hours in an evening on a
topic.

The NSF-sponsored panels spend three weekends over the
course of two months, for a total of 20 hours, considering
their assigned issues, plus time studying on their own.
Panelists are selected from volunteers who respond to
newspaper ads. They are paid $500 for their participation.

"We are trying to measure what the average citizen who
bothered to study an issue would think about it," Hamlett
explained.

What impact the conferences will have on public policy
remains to be seen. "When I wake up at night, that's what
bothers me," Hamlett said.

One skeptic on the Science committee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher,
R-Calif., scoffed that they will "just give the nuts a
podium."

Macoubrie, the project leader, is undeterred.

"I believe that high-quality citizen decisions can come out
of these conferences," she said.

Copyright (c) 2003 KR Washington Bureau and wire service
sources. All Rights Reserved.