A public dialogue meant to inform and guide the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council's strategy and policy development. The process trialled a 'distributed' approach to dialogue to allow for continued communication between participants.
Problems and Purpose
In the UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Bioenergy Public Dialogue project ran from September 2012 until December 2013. It was co-funded by BBSRC and Sciencewise and was intended to “allow the diverse perspectives of a range of UK residents, in the area of bioenergy, to be articulated clearly and in public in order that future policies can better reflect these views, concerns and aspirations”. The project also trialled a novel, distributed, approach to public dialogue which would, it was hoped, develop an ongoing, informed discussion between BBSRC and its research community, the public and other stakeholders, around bioenergy research. Instead of commissioning an independent contractor to run a number of dialogue events over an agreed period of time, BBSRC invited interested institutions and individuals to run their own dialogue events, providing feedback which would be analysed and used to inform BBSRC’s policy and decision-making on bioenergy.
According to the final report, the stated aims and objectives of the project are:
- To explore with members of the public, their views in regard to bioenergy, and consider those views in our strategy and policy development in bioenergy
- To pilot a novel approach to public dialogue, to develop an on-going, informed discussion between ourselves, our research community, the public and other stakeholders, around bioenergy research
- To facilitate discussions between the BBSRC Scientific community involved in bioenergy research and members of the public
- To identify public views concerns and aspirations about the science, social implications, and ethics of bioenergy research
- To raise awareness within the BBSRC of the needs and views of the public in relation to bioenergy
- To inform BBSRC’s strategy and policy setting around bioenergy
- To disseminate our findings to key stakeholders, for example, the government
- To develop and test a novel, flexible model of dialogue for discussion of complex issues that enables engagement with a large group of people nationwide.
Background History and Context
The BBSRC is one of seven research councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), and is funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Sciencewise is a programme funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It provides assistance to policy makers to carry out public dialogues to inform decision making on science and technology issues. BBSRC saw bioenergy as an area of research that could potentially provide a significant response to the challenges of sustainable energy production in a low-carbon economy. Industrial biotechnology and bioenergy (IBBE) is one of three BBSRC strategic research priorities and a number of large investments have already been made, including:
- A £24 million investment in the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC)
- A £6 million investment in an Integrated Biorefining Research and Technology Club in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and a consortium of businesses
- An £18 million investment in BBSRC Networks in Industrial biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB). With EPSRC, 13 collaborative networks were funded to boost interaction between the academic research base and industry
- IB catalyst will be jointly funded by Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) and EPSRC –£45 million has been committed to support major integrated research projects in IBBE
BBSRC has a long history of engaging in public dialogue. Previous approaches to public dialogues used by BBSRC and other research councils have tended to use large-scale deliberative dialogues which happen as a one-off project, and often use market research-based techniques for public engagement. Although there are advantages to these dialogues, there are also limitations, including the sense that their “top-down” nature does not encourage spontaneous adoption by researchers or public engagement professionals (in contrast with Democs, for example). Therefore, BBSRC looked into exploring other possibilities.
A project called “Small Talk” served as an inspiration for the intended project; in this project participants engaged in one of three strands which included a range of types of engagement from full day facilitated workshops to self-organised community events. Influenced by these dialogue projects, BBSRC adopted a model, new for the Research Councils, for a more distributed and flexible approach to dialogue and engagement on bioenergy and the issues that surround it. This distributed dialogue model was aimed at developing an ongoing, embedded discussion between BBSRC, its research community, the public and other stakeholders, around bioenergy research, that would engage a larger number of researchers and members of the public than previous dialogues and which might be more cost effective.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. The BBSRC is one of seven research councils that work together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), and is funded by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It receives an annual budget of around £467m (2012-2013). BBSRC co-funded and commissioned the public dialogue.
Sciencewise is the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. It provides co-funding and specialist advice to Government departments and agencies to develop and commission public dialogue activities in emerging areas of science and technology. Sciencewise co-funded this project (£52 295 of £91 361)
Ipsos MORI is one of the largest and best known research companies in the UK and part of the global Ipsos Group. The Ipsos Social Research Institute is the leader in public sector research helping policy and decision makers understand what works.
Collingwood Environmental Planning (CEP) is an independent multidisciplinary environmental and sustainability consultancy and was the evaluator of this project.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
- 162 Participants
- 35 Organisers
A total of 11 public dialogue events were run by researchers and other groups between January and September 2013. It should be noted, there were considerable differences across workshops in terms of who took part. Overall, attendees differed from the UK population in that they had very high educational qualifications and the age range skewed towards the old and the young over the middle aged. Also, three quarters said that they are in some way involved in science professionally. They are not statistically representative but are illustrative of the range of views and arguments made by participants and, where possible, the drivers behind these views. It is not possible to extend the findings to make generalised comments on the views of the UK population.
Methods and Tools Used
BBSRC appointed a Dialogue Coordinator to coordinate project activities including the development of materials. Two different tools were used: a Bioenergy Dialogue Toolkit was produced, based on future scenarios and containing a number of activities and resources; and an existing Democs Game was used in which participants use cards with information to prompt discussion. The toolkit included:
- guidelines for running an engagement event
- a set of futures scenarios and associated discussion materials
- a Democs card game
The main mechanism for the collection of feedback was through feedback forms which aimed to capture:
- Views and opinions of participants
- Demographic information about participants
- Information about the event itself
- Information about the process of the dialogue, e.g. how the materials were received
- Perceptions about what the impacts of the dialogue might be.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The timeline for the Bioenergy public dialogue, as outlined in the evaluation report is outlined below.
Preparation and Design
September 2012: Recruitment of Dialogue Coordinator
October 2012- January 2013: Finalisation of materials and tools
January 2013: Training and pilot event
Feb- April 2013: Revision of dialogue materials
April- September 2013: Public dialogue events
Analysis and Reporting
October- November 2013: Analysis of results
December 2013: Publication of Bioenergy Dialogue Final Report
After a training and pilot session in January 2013, 10 public dialogue events were run between April and September in different locations across England and Wales. 162 public participants were involved and completed feedback forms. The feedback forms were analysed and the Bioenergy Dialogue Final Report published in December 2013.
Although there was not a prescriptive plan to follow in the events that used the scenarios, the toolkit produced by BBSRC included outline event plans, intended as a useful tool to help organizers plan their event. A typical two hour session included the following:
Introduction: a brief explanation of the aims of the dialogue project, expected outcomes, and structure of the event, followed by a brief talk by a bioenergy researcher about bioenergy (including the bioenergy research conducted within the research group organising the event) and the main issues around bioenergy.
Icebreaker: A short activity using ‘picture cards’ to allow participants to introduce themselves and promote quick identification of participants’ initial reactions to bioenergy.
The scenarios: Participants were split into groups of 6-8 people, usually with one facilitator (responsible for guiding the discussion) and one bioenergy researcher (responsible for providing information on bioenergy if participants asked). Then, they were asked to read one of the scenarios either as a story or a short play. Facilitators used ‘cue cards’ and ‘character cards’ to help spur discussion. The scenarios could be used in different ways and it was up to the facilitator to decide which resources to use and how to use them. A voting-type activity was often used to help clarify the issues (by writing them down) and help participants think about which were most important to them. This was often the focus of the plenary discussion which was encouraged.
Feedback: 10-15 minutes was recommended to allow participants to fill in the feedback forms, after which the event was drawn to a close. The Democs game is a more structured discussion tool that prescribes an event format. It includes an introduction, dealing out and discussion of three types of card followed by sorting the cards and completing the feedback forms.
April-September 2013: Public dialogue events
The participants of the public dialogues expressed the following views:
Hopes for Bioenergy
When asked why they thought bioenergy could be useful, participants in the dialogue event could see the potential of bioenergy to:
- Increase the amount of renewable sources in our energy supply
- Offer an alternative to fossil fuels and/or nuclear power
- Power our transport needs
- Provide cost effective fuel that uses current resources well·
- Increase energy security through domestic and decentralised generation
- Reduce carbon emissions and help tackle climate change and environmental destruction
- Generate energy from currently unused resources (land and waste).
Overall, many saw bioenergy as a key part of - but not the entire solution to - the UK's energy needs in the future.
Concerns about bioenergy
However, there were concerns about whether the gains from bioenergy use will be spread fairly among all those involved in and affected by its production. The potential range of negative impacts was a worry for many, in particular the consequences for land use, food production, biodiversity and the environment more generally. Participants thought that there is potential for those who are already poorest to suffer the most from any such impacts.
Another strand of concern related to how bioenergy fits into the wider debate around cutting carbon emissions and diversification of the energy mix. Some worried that it could be used as “greenwash”, others thought it was distracting from the need for reducing the demand for energy. More practical concerns related to the ability of those taking decisions around energy to plan wisely in the long-term to ensure impacts are acceptable and to cooperate internationally to allow for efficient and speedy progress in the use of bioenergy.
Priorities for bioenergy researchers
When asked about what they thought bioenergy researchers should be thinking about, participants’ responses generally fell under one of the following key themes, which are very similar to the concerns described in the previous section.
- Ensuring the viability/practicality/scalability/accessibility of bioenergy technology
- Who is going to benefit and what are their motivations
- Implications for people
- Implications for the planet and what's most sustainable long-term
- Consider the bigger picture and other options
- Talking to and informing the public/transparency
- Listening to the public and taking their opinions into account
- Population growth/population control.
Overall, they thought it important that researchers should be thinking about benefits, impacts and risks of bioenergy, while keeping one eye on the bigger picture of how it fits in with wider attempts to diversify the energy mix and reduce carbon emissions. The responses to this question were the most heterogeneous of the four, and what follows is necessarily a high-level summary.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Bioenergy dialogue recognised in new European catalogue of innovative public engagement (September 2015)
The Bioenergy dialogue, completed in 2013, was chosen by the EU Public Engagement Innovations for Horizon 2020 project (PE2020) as an example of "new endeavours of engaging the public and helped reinvigorate the field at large". The catalogue focuses on "innovative and cutting edge practices" including methodological novelty, inclusive new ways of representation, feasibility and potential impact. The Bioenergy dialogue is one of only four purely UK projects among the 38 cases chosen.
Bioenergy Dialogue Impacts on BBSRC strategy and thinking (April 2015)
In January 2015, one year after the completion and publication of the reports from the BBSRC bioenergy dialogue project, BBSRC published an update on the influence of the project on their strategy and thinking. They confirmed that the dialogue had achieved the following impacts:
Although the dialogue did not reveal significant new insights into public views and values around bioenergy, it was "reassuring that what BBSRC already understood about public views and values on bioenergy had been supported".
The dialogue findings and involvement of BBSRC staff in dialogue events increased organisational awareness of the importance of the 'triple bottom line' of economic, social and environmental impacts of research. [This relates to the findings from the dialogue that researchers should think about "the 'bigger picture' issues of benefit and fairness, impact and sustainability" (page 5 of dialogue report)]. This was now being applied to proposed research in this area where new, practical bioenergy applications are being development and applicants are being asked to fully consider the wider impacts of their research.
The dialogue informed BBSRC communications and engagement work around bioenergy. It revealed that the public participants had limited baseline awareness of the issues around bioenergy and wanted to learn more.
The most significant impacts of the project were expected to be on BBSRC's and others' practice around public engagement and dialogue: BBSRC had contributed to two EU projects relating to the future shape of public engagement in the EU (Engage 2020 and PE2020). There was learning about the model of distributed dialogue used in the project, and BBSRC would "certainly consider using a similar model again".
The dialogue developed understanding across a wider number of BBSRC staff as to the value and complexities of public dialogue, and "was valuable as an exercise in supporting and encouraging BBSRC-funded researchers to do public engagement". The resulting toolkit was also "well received".
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The evaluation reports the following findings in relation to lessons learned from the process. The effectiveness of the dialogue was assessed against Sciencewise’s principles of good practice for public dialogue. The first three principles relate to the context, scope and delivery of the dialogue and are discussed here.
i) The conditions leading to the dialogue process are conducive to the best outcomes (Context)
What worked well:
- The majority of those involved (decision-makers, event organisers and members of the public) felt clear about the objectives of the events they attended.
- The ongoing nature of the distributed dialogue meant that researchers and event organisers could make events fit with their own programmes. This should become still more effective if the dialogue becomes established and better known.
- The right kinds of resources were provided for people organising dialogue events: support from the Dialogue Coordinator, the Toolkit and some funding for refreshments.
What worked less well:
- Because dialogue events were distributed over time, the way that the findings of the events would be taken into account in decision-making was harder to define, although most of the people interviewed felt that the links could be made.
- The dialogue reached a limited audience, mainly made up of people who were professionally involved in the science or already had an interest; there was little involvement of hard-to-reach groups.
- The governance structures did not meet regularly enough to provide timely oversight and advice.
ii) The range of issues and policy opinions covered in the dialogue reflects the participants’ interests (Scope).
What worked well:
- The majority of the members of the public who participated in the dialogue felt that they had been able to discuss the issues that concerned them
- Although participants had different opinions about the relevance of the dialogue materials, the majority felt that the materials were relevant to the topic and helped to stimulate discussions
- Participants generally felt that the dialogue was valuable and it was important that BBSRC should take account of public concerns and interests.
What worked less well:
- Some participants and event organisers expressed a concern that the lack of time and depth of discussion meant that members of the public were not in a position to provide the kind of feedback that BBSRC was looking for
- Given the limited range of participants, the results do not provide information about the views and attitudes of a cross-section of the UK public; they do reflect the attitudes and opinions of a certain sector of the population that is generally more engaged with science issues and with the topic of bioenergy.
iii) The dialogue process itself represents best practice in design and execution (Delivery).
What worked well:
- Bioenergy researchers were keen to get involved in the events and their specialist input was appreciated by participants.
- Getting researchers to independently organise and run eight events within a period of about six months is a considerable achievement. If the bioenergy dialogue were to continue, it is likely that more researchers and engagement experts would hear about it and want to run events.
- Most members of the public who participated in the dialogue felt that the materials they were given were fair and unbiased.
What worked less well:
- Many of those organising and facilitating dialogue events had little training or experience of dialogue and several reported having difficulty in managing sessions. This meant that the events did not deliver the expected results in terms of views of members of the public on bioenergy.
- Each dialogue event involved one two-hour session. This is considered too little time for members of the public to explore the topic of bioenergy in sufficient depth to be able to give a considered opinion on it. There were comments from both public participants and event organisers that events felt rushed
Impact of the dialogue
The fourth of Sciencewise’s principles of good practice for public dialogue is impact, i.e. the delivery of the desired outcomes. In general it was found that the results of the bioenergy dialogue are valuable for highlighting concerns and priorities that some audiences have regarding bioenergy. However, factors such as the potential for inconsistencies between events run in different locations by different teams, the short time for discussion and some of the characteristics of the people involved - such as the high level of educational qualifications and involvement with science - mean that these results should be used with care.
What worked well:
- The Bioenergy Dialogue Final Report makes a useful contribution to understanding how dialogue can provide insights into public views about science.
- The results of the dialogue have not been publicised as yet either within or outside BBSRC. BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel has reviewed the report and members felt that it provided a lot of good material. There is potential for wider use of the results of the dialogue when the report is publicised more widely.
- There is likely to be further interest from stakeholder groups when the report is disseminated more widely. One organisation working to provide information on sustainability in farming has been in touch with BBSRC as a result of reading the report.
- People who ran events mentioned many positive impacts for their teams, including better understanding of the role and value of dialogue and increased skills; event organisers were unanimous in saying that they would be willing to participate in this kind of activity in the future.
- Most participants said that they had learnt new things. Over half felt that the results of the dialogue session they attended were valuable and should be taken into account by BBSRC.
What worked less well
- A number of factors in the way that the distributed dialogue was run mean that the results must be interpreted and used with care. These include: the characteristics of participants, the majority of whom had educational qualifications well above those of the UK population as a whole, were directly or indirectly involved in science activities and were concentrated in two principal age groups (under 30 and over 65 years old); the short sessions which prevented full exploration of issues and concerns; and the lack of recording or reporting of the discussions during the event, which made it difficult to interpret some of the participants’ feedback
- There is little evidence that the results of the dialogue events are being used to inform bioenergy research in the institutions where they were held
- A significant minority of public participants did not feel that they had been able to fully explore the topic of bioenergy and suggested that the results of the activity should not be taken into account in decision-making.
It is difficult to compare the costs of a distributed dialogue like the bioenergy dialogue with a more conventional dialogue where the activities and their costs are well-defined. In a distributed dialogue the costs are distributed between actors (in this case, BBSRC, the institutions hosting dialogues and in some cases the researchers and facilitators who gave up their own time to participate).
One significant and unexpected cost for the bioenergy dialogue was the support provided for the teams running events. The need for the Dialogue Coordinator to dedicate additional time to providing advice and training and in some cases attending events was a significant cost to the project as a whole. It is likely that future distributed dialogues will need to take account of this cost.It will only be possible to fully assess the cost effectiveness of the project when it becomes clear how the dialogue’s findings have been used and the benefits provided (for BBSRC, the researchers who ran events and their institutions and for public participants). This is the key factor in determining the value of the dialogue.
Recommendations for the future
i) The experience of the bioenergy public dialogue suggests that distributed dialogues can be a vehicle for engaging researchers and academic institutions in developing two-way conversations about science with members of the public. In order to build on this interest, BBSRC and other science institutions would need to put structures and mechanisms in place to support researchers and others to organise activities (for example in targeting existing groups that may be willing and able to take part, and planning events to enable sufficient time for participants to digest the information provided and for effective deliberation). At the same time, efforts should be made to develop skills and capacities among organisers so that better results can be achieved in areas such as the recording and reporting of discussions.
ii) The Toolkit and the Democs game used for the bioenergy dialogue were seen as essential tools for those running events. If the bioenergy dialogue is to be continued, BBSRC should further develop these materials, for example, by adding an introductory presentation, to ensure they are fit for purpose.
iii) It is important not to underestimate the time and resource needed to support distributed dialogue. While it is expected that the value for money provided by this approach will increase as those delivering dialogue events become more skilled and are able to facilitate richer dialogues, this might need to be accompanied by other changes which will have resource implications, such as making events longer and facilitating the sharing of best practice. It will be important to continue to monitor the benefits of the bioenergy dialogue as these are still emerging and to assess the costs and benefits of future distributed dialogues.
iv) BBSRC and other institutions running distributed dialogue processes should establish governance structures in which roles and responsibilities are clear and those with a central role in steering and monitor the process have sufficient time and resources to play these roles.
The original submission of this case entry was adapted from the Sciencewise archived resources (attached). It has since been edited and expanded by the Participedia community and does not necessarily reflect the views of Sciencewise.