The German Science Debate: innovation with democratic participation

Science and technology are always intertwined with the economic and political system. Therefore it needs to be submitted to fundamental democratic procedures. The bodies of the civil society need to be included, according to the publicly funded civil society platform for a change in research (Zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform Forschungswende), which, on 31st May 2013, dedicates an entire day to an in-depth expert discussion at the renowned Berlin Brandburg Academy of Science.

Science journalists follow a similar, but more fundamental approach. For the upcoming federal elections in September 2013, the German Association of Science Writers TELI has launched a Science Debate. On its internet platform, every citizen is able to share a topic of concern, or just post a query or a comment. These will subsequently be discussed with experts. This approach follows Abrahams Lincoln’s tradition, whose 150 years old guiding principle “of the people, by the people and for the people” is still current.

If a theme gains a critical mass a face-to-face meeting will be organised. For example, one is planned in Munich on demography and the question of whether retirement shall remain mandatory or left to individuals to decide. Brain researchers will report their findings on the fitness of the human mind and the biology of ageing to the public, which will be followed by a debate. The federal elections candidates for the German parliament, the Bundestag—also invited to this debate—will subsequently be requested to take the outcome to the next parliament and introduce it to legislation.

The inventor of the German Science Debate is Hanns-J. Neubert, a biologist and science journalist, former TELI chairman and president emeritus of the European Union Science Journalists Association (EUSJA). He argues that in reality the top-down flow is still current. Nowadays, participation in society in general—and science and technology in particular— is geared towards providing acceptance for decisions, which have already been taken. In other words, it is like retroactive legitimisation. This process can also be illustrated through a metaphor. If the decision making process is a pipeline, consultation and participation are located at the end whereas, Neubert argues, they should be at the beginning.

Nanotechnologies are a prime example of the inequality of public participation, which only took place after the technology had been made available and not before. Risk assessment and governance expert Ortwin Renn—who is a professor of sociology at the University Stuttgart, Germany—has published a book chapter on this issue. He believes that only if experts and lay people consider themselves partners, can a new level of cooperation and robust progress be reached. This is in his view the cornerstone of any modern “participative and deliberative democracy”.

A worldwide landmark in participatory democracy was recently established by grassroots movements. For example, the green movement goes back to the 1970’s and re-emerged very strongly after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. The German government under public pressure decided to phase out nuclear energy and replace it with renewable sources.

In Germany, one third of the citizens engage in social affairs such as volunteering in hospitals and schools. Without the involvement of its citizens, the German public life would come to a standstill. German citizens increasingly demand to be heard in major political and economic, technological and scientific decisions. For example, they have shared their views with researchers and decision makers on new airports and train stations, genetically modified organisms, nanoparticles in clothes or food, or the ethics of stem cell research.

The new species of what Neubert has baptised “debate driven science journalism” could zero in on questionable practices. It could also inject fresh blood into an ailing profession, which is more and more reduced to a non-critical cheer leading type of science communication. “We need to look over the edge of the plate, we have to overlook the whole dining room, overlook research in a very broad frame”, urges Neubert. He sums up the goal of the Science Debate: “It should be our job as science journalists to find out how, where, when, under which circumstances society as a whole does benefit from research and technology.”

To spread the word about this concept, Neubert will present the Science Debate as a new participation and governance tool as a means to shed light on some of the absurdities of scientific practices and some of its inconsistencies, at the World Conference of Science Journalists WCSJ 2013 in Helsinki this June.

Meanwhile, the German federal election countdown is on. Yet, it remains to be seen how the new debate platform will influence the campaign. And whether it will impact the performance of science journalism in the international field.

In parallel, many scientists will probably have mixed feelings about subjecting their research projects to public scrutiny. And not everyone in this community is as sovereign as Wolfgang M. Heckl, professor of physics at the Technical University Munich and director-general of the German Museum. As long as ten years ago, he was already running public hearings on nanotechnology, arguing that to ignore resentments of the population would only lead to protests and ultimately research into a dead-end street.

The ideas of futurologist and science journalist Robert Jungk—whose 100th birthday is commemorated in Salzburg and Berlin this year—have certainly influenced people like Heckl, Renn or Neubert. If no bridges are being built between scientists and citizens, he wrote 30 years ago, “their work is unscientific, because they ignore public acceptance and disapproval and they are condemned to inhuman science which necessarily must lead to catastrophes”.

Wolfgang C. Goede

Wolfgang C. Goede was, for 28 years, an Editor at Germany’s leading popular science magazine P.M. He is vice chairman of the German Association of Science Writers TELI and secretary of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA)

Featured image credit: W. Goede

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