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AuthorUnited Nations Conference on Trade and Development
TitlePanel on Public Awareness and Participation in Science Policy-making in Biotechnology
Imprint Geneva, United Nations. 2001
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Descript 25 p


This paper summarizes the panel's discussions; it does not necessarily reflect the views of the UNCTAD secretariat. 1. The primary objective of this third CSTD panel on biotechnology was to create a process for building public awareness about the opportunities and challenges presented by biotechnology development and for promoting dialogue amongst scientists, the biotechnology industry, policy makers and the public. It has become clear that, at a time when science is opening up so many new possibilities for addressing human welfare problems, there is, perhaps paradoxically, a growing distrust of science on the part of the public. The public backlash against genetically modified products in some western European countries has strongly reinforced the need for a more transparent process for informing and involving non-experts in biotechnological development. 2. Despite this backlash, the "Eurobarometer" survey found in 2000 that public perceptions of biotechnology in Europe are, on the whole, positive. However, the survey also found that the increased understanding of biotechnology has not necessarily resulted in greater public acceptance. This was attributed in part to the polarization of the public debate on genetically-modified crops. Moreover, the panel agreed that there is a pressing need for more balanced information to reach the public. As many national Governments are mistrusted to provide such balanced information. In this regard, therefore, scientists and journalists were identified as the two key groups best suited to disseminate this information. The panel agreed that scientists must become more active in reporting details of their work to the public, both directly and through the mass media. It was recognized that journalists and editors are primarily concerned with providing 'good stories' to the public, rather than supplying accurate and balanced information on science and technology issues. Nevertheless, the quality of science reporting could be enhanced through training in science communication and through closer links between journalists and the scientific community. 3. Many of the problems of public perception and public awareness in Europe are also relevant also in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. In many developing countries, there are further significant difficulties in building public awareness. These include diverse levels of education and literacy across the country as a whole and the inability for large parts of the population to access the mass media. From reports presented to the panel, it was evident that public awareness about and interest in, biotechnology is low in many developing countries. Perhaps partly because of this, raising awareness and involving the public in policy debate has not been a priority of national Governments. It was recognized that whilst public understanding of biotechnology is very low, the public will not have an effective voice in science policy decision-making, even where mechanisms to ensure public participation are introduced. Furthermore, as long as a low level of public interest persists, it is difficult to justify expenditure of resources on participatory decision-making mechanisms such as public consensus conferences. However, it was agreed that in as much as building public awareness is a prerequisite for successful public involvement in policy debate, mechanisms such as public opinion surveys could be introduced in order for governments to gauge the tide of public perceptions of biotechnology. In addition, action should be taken to ensure that the 'public interest' is adequately represented in policy debate and formulation. 4. National Governments, international organizations and NGOs can play key roles in raising public awareness and promoting public participation in science policy decision-making, both by providing balanced information and by establishing and supporting public forums for open and transparent dialogue on the potential opportunities and challenges related to biotechnology. [English only]

International Institute for Trade and Developement : UNCTAD CollectionE/CN.16/2001/MISC.3CHECK SHELVES

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