Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report



Note by the Chairman

1. I and three other members of the Sub-Committee, and our Specialist Assistant, visited Denmark for three days in November 1999. The programme of meetings, all of which took place in or around Copenhagen, was arranged to give the visitors a sense of the Danish approach to dealing with science that causes public controversy. We were interested in the different institutions, particularly the Danish Board of Technology, which Denmark has developed in order to address concerns that we recognised from our inquiry, and in how the emphasis on consensus in Danish life and politics, greater than in the United Kingdom or the USA, influenced the relationship between science and society.

2. My companions were Lord Howie of Troon, Lord Perry of Walton, Baroness Platt of Writtle, and Dr Adam Heathfield. Gary Kass of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, who was visiting Denmark as part of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship, accompanied our party and provided invaluable assistance in planning our programme of meetings. We cannot praise highly enough the many busy people who were so generous with their time in receiving us on our visit, so informative when discussing the points we wished to address, and so forgiving of our lack of Danish as to speak to us in English throughout our stay. We wish particularly to place on record our thanks for the hospitality and assistance we received from HE Mr Philip Astley, HM Ambassador to Denmark, and his staff, notably Mr Nick Alexander who accompanied us to all our meetings.

3. This note is a summary of the main points brought to the visiting party's attention during our time in Denmark. The text in italics represents our comments on information received in each of the meetings, that in plain text is either background information or observations made to us by our hosts.

4. The cost of the visit was approximately £5,000.

5. Where finances are mentioned in the note, an approximate currency conversion is DKK 10 = £1.


Ministry of Research and Information Technology

  • Knud Larsen, Permanent Secretary
  • Ove Poulsen, Deputy Permanent Secretary, Research Policy
  • Merete Reuss, Head of Analyses and Strategies Division
  • Karen Siune, Danish Institute for Studies in Research and Research Policy

6. The Ministry of Research and Information Technology has the political responsibility for research, universities, IT and telecommunications. It was established as an independent ministry in 1993 as the co-ordinating body for Danish research. It currently employs around 160 staff; its budget in 1998 was DKK 7 billion (£700 M).

7. Parliament adopts the Danish research budget annually, and the Ministry has to translate the budget allocation into activities that support the science base and meet general societal aims. A 60:40 split between basic science and politically-directed research is maintained.

8. The Danish public have high levels of interest in and understanding of science, particularly regarding health matters. These factors do not lead to a deferential attitude to scientists, but to a feeling that the public should be involved in setting the science agenda. Such attitudes extend beyond science; Denmark has a strong voting culture, and what was described to us as a generally sceptical attitude if expected to defer to expert advice.

9. Denmark has tried to develop institutions through which public views can be included in science policy. The Ministry stressed the importance of leaving science and technology to the experts, but there were political decisions about science in which the public should be involved. It was important that public views were used to inform Parliament and the administration, rather than to influence the science agenda directly.

10. Examples of different mechanisms that allowed the public to get involved in discussions about science included:

  • The Danish Board of Technology, a statutory body which reports to Parliament. It uses a variety of methods to assess technology in society.
  • The Council of Ethics, which considers the ethics of biomedical topics. It holds its meetings in public and reports to Parliament.
  • Public meetings with the Minister of Research held across Denmark.
  • The Ministry of Research Web site, which has a page inviting suggestions for topics to be studied under future EU Framework programmes.
  • University performance contracts: a new concept introduced in Spring 1999 which includes a requirement for universities to hold meetings with public representatives, staff, students, and external experts to check the general support for their overall research aims. However, in the first round of this new performance contract system, the plan to hold public meetings could not be realised.
  • The Parliamentary Research Committee, which accepts suggestions for questions from the general public.

11. It appeared to us that Denmark was a long way behind the USA in terms of open government, but increasing efforts, including an ongoing parliamentary investigation, were being devoted to making information public.

Central Scientific and Ethical Committee (CSEC)

  • Dr Kamma Bertelsen, Chairman, CSEC
  • Jens William Grav, Arne Skibsted Jacobsen, Steed Levin Nielsen, Edith Holm, Anne-Marie Bønløkke Larsen, Hanne Koktvedgaard (secretary)

12. The CSEC is at the head of a system of 8 regional ethical committees whose role is to review the ethics of proposed medical research programmes; the nearest equivalents in the United Kingdom are local medical ethics committees. The CSEC is appointed by the Minister of Research, the regional committees are appointed by local government. The current system was given its legal foundation in 1992.

13. For medical research involving humans, it is mandatory to get the approval of the CSEC before the research starts. Failure to do so can result in criminal prosecution. Protection from unnecessary risk and gaining informed consent (especially for under-18s) are key elements of the CSEC criteria.

14. The unique element of the system is the composition of the committees. Medical experts are represented, but the statutory regulations of the committees state that they must be in a minority. Lay members, normally local politicians, are in the majority.

15. The committees do not meet in public, nor are their minutes made public. Only the approval or rejection of each proposal is disclosed. The Government is encouraging the CSEC to be more open, but issues of privacy (for individuals and companies) are raised in the types of projects they have to assess.

16. The presence of a lay majority on the ethical committees caused surprise among some of the visiting party. The Danish model is aimed at building public trust by making it clear that ethical considerations, rather than research interests, were the deciding criteria in allowing research to proceed. It is apparent that the successful working of the system requires, in addition to the regulatory framework, that the medical experts and applicants trust the lay membership to make reasonable decisions, and that the lay members trust the technical advice of the medical experts. Lay majorities on the ethical committees have not significantly changed medical research practice in Denmark, indicating that systems designed to build public trust do not necessarily hamper scientific research.

Parliamentary Research Committee

  • Hanne Severinsen MP, Chairman
  • Lise Hækkerup MP, Tove Videbæk MP, Søren Gade MP, Committee Members
  • Lis Grønnegård Rasmussen, Committee Secretary

17. The Research Committee is one of 17 standing committees in the Danish Parliament. Its role is to shadow the work of the Ministry of Research. It is the committee to which the Danish Board of Technology report. The work of the Committee involves more meetings and hearings than scrutinising legislation. The Committee visits different parts of Denmark, discussing university research. Topics that the Committee has considered recently include patenting of research and disclosure of sponsorship.

18. Ms Severinsen described one format used in Committee hearings in which the Committee oversee a discussion between experts with different views on a contentious science topic. At the end of such a meeting, it was normally very clear which ideas were worthy of being pursued and which were not.

19. The Research Committee clearly felt that there was a role for lay opinion in forming science policy. They regarded themselves, drawn from elected representatives, as being approximately representative of public views. The Danish Board of Technology (DBT) were one of a number of sources of useful information for the Committee. One very important contribution of the DBT was in assembling experts to be interviewed in Research Committee hearings. It appeared that the DBT's work involving public participation was interesting but not vital to the Research Committee; the results of consensus conferences (see DBT below) were attended to seriously, but it was clear that decisions on science policy were made by politicians, not by any form of direct democracy.


Technical University of Denmark (DTU)

  • Hans Peter Jensen, Rector, DTU

20. Rector Jensen gave us an outline of the DTU's history and current state of health. He described the general decline in the number of graduates in engineering and science subjects, saying that in Denmark there was much more student interest in anthropology and economics than in natural science. About one quarter of the DTU's intake were women; Rector Jensen said there was fairly equal gender representation in chemistry and environmental science, but mechanical engineering and informatics had a disproportionately small number of female students.

  • Associate Professor Ulrik Jørgensen, Department of Technology and Social Sciences
  • Associate Professor Michael Søgaard Jørgensen, Department of Technology and Social Sciences
  • Associate Professor Christian Clausen, Department of Technology and Social Sciences
  • Dr Annegrethe Hansen, Department of Technology and Social Sciences

21. The Department of Technology and Social Sciences (abbreviated from its Danish title to ITS) conducts research into the effects of technology on (and its interaction with) cultural, social and environmental conditions in Denmark. Its applied research aims to develop methods to allow the public to influence the decision making behind technological development, including a research programme under the title "Sociology, and Technology and Engineering Knowledge".

22. The ITS also organises a Science Shop—an organisation which provides research for citizens on request. Individuals, public-interest groups, trade unions and local government agencies can all submit questions to be addressed. The Science Shop has been operating for a number of years, and is modelled on a well-established Dutch system.

23. The DTU's Science Shop receives 25-45 requests each year. Only some are suitable to be taken up as research projects, and about 20 are carried out. Popular subject areas have included environmentally-friendly technology, technology for the disabled, and organic food production. The projects are carried out by students as part of their training, under the supervision of senior academics.

24. The meeting highlighted the fact that although Denmark has developed many methods of assessing the interactions between technology and society, there is a perceived need to advance this area of work still further. Even in the area of biotechnology, where Danish regulations and research and development policy were "very negotiated", there was considerable scope for improvement. Certain groups, such as researchers, patent holders and policy makers, have well-defined stakes in a new technology, and they can influence how it develops. Other groups, like prospective end users and general members of society, will also be affected by any new technology, but including their views during development stages is far harder.

25. Annegrethe Hansen said that despite the requirement that government-funded biotechnology research projects must include assessments of ethical, environmental and health impacts, public concerns raised in the 1970s and 1980s have not been sufficiently taken into account. She considered that the industrial and research communities have focussed on developing new applications rather than addressing public fears.

26. The Science Shop concept seems to be well suited to Denmark, and is an idea that might usefully be expanded in the United Kingdom (where there are two science shops, both in Northern Ireland).

Danish Board of Technology

  • Lars Klüver, Director
  • Jan Ejlsted, Vice-Director

27. The Danish Board of Technology (DBT) was set up in 1985 and given a permanent legal foundation in 1995. It has an annual budget of DKK 10 million (about £1 M). Its stated objectives are to "further the technology debate, assess technological impacts and options, and advise the Danish Parliament and Government"; it reports to the Parliamentary Committee on Research. Written into its establishing Act is a commitment to "take up participatory procedures", and it has experimented widely to find technology assessment methods that suit the distinctive Danish ethos. The two consensus conferences organised in the United Kingdom have used methods developed by the DBT; the work of the DBT was the main reason for the Committee's visit to Denmark.

28. The DBT chooses the topics it wishes to study (except for parliamentary hearings). Suggestions can come from within the Board, or from members of parliament, government, researchers, NGOs, and private citizens. No parliamentarians are allowed on the Board, which helps to maintain the DBT's real and reputed independence.

29. Much of the value of the DBT is in bringing together different groups with a range of perspectives on new technologies. At its simplest, this can involve expert scientists and parliamentarians; more complex networks are involved if a spectrum of views from the general public is sought. Close links to Parliament are clearly important in giving the DBT credibility and persuading people to give up their time to participate. However, such links need to be created with care, since independence is essential for the DBT to function effectively.

30. The DBT have developed a range of different methods of technology assessment that they can apply to different types of problems. Having many different methods at their disposal, and having a suitable institutional culture, were central to the success of the DBT. The presence of the DBT was not a panacea for conflicts over new technology, but it provided a valuable forum in which different views of politicians, scientific experts, NGOs and members of the general public could be exchanged.

31. Consensus conferences were singled out for discussion. It was agreed that they were expensive to organise (DKK 700,000, including staff costs) but were cost-effective when compared to traditional social science projects or to developing technology that no-one wanted. Consensus conferences tended to act as milestones in debates, but were not suitable for all stages of technology development; many topics were better addressed using other methods.

32. The idea of consensus was important in many of the methods the DBT used. In Denmark, consensus meant the highest level of agreement that could be reached without any party actively objecting; it implied neither compromise nor unanimous support. An important area of the DBT's work was to identify areas where conflicting parties could find agreement, and thereby begin a constructive dialogue.

33. Discussing the possibility of providing "early warning" of potential controversy, Mr Klüver said that the DBT had tried but with little success. He noted that controversy was not always undesirable, since it was frequently required before the public would become engaged in a debate. Consequently, even if early warnings were identified, it could be difficult to raise a political or public debate in advance.

34. A concern of some members of the visiting party was that consulting the public on technical matters could result in a form of direct democracy, in which the role of elected representatives would be reduced. We were assured that our fears were groundless. The results of the DBT's work were made available for Parliament to use as it saw fit, and the DBT had no role as an arbiter in technology debates. Indeed, the DBT were anxious to avoid too direct an impact of their work, since focussing on the output of consultations might obscure the value of the process.

Meeting hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen

  • Tage Bild, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences
  • Bente Hagelund, Head of Office, Faculty of Social Sciences
  • Professor Margareta Bertilsson, Department of Sociology
  • Associate Professor Charlotte Bloch, Department of Sociology
  • Professor Hans Siggard, Copenhagen Business School
  • Maja Horst, PhD student, Copenhagen Business School
  • Professor Karl Axel Gemzell, Department of History
  • Professor Thomas Søderquist, Science and Society, Medical History Museum
  • Associate Professor Hanne Foss Hansen, Institute of Political Science
  • Mette Nordal Svendsen, PhD student, Faculty of Health Sciences
  • Janus Hansen, University of Copenhagen

35. The meeting with various social scientists was arranged to provide some information about the social context of science in Denmark, and to provide the visiting party with a better idea of how the different institutions we had visited fitted into Danish society.

36. The main message of the meeting was that public scepticism of new technology was not a manifestation of an anti-science culture, and should not be mistaken for outright rejection. Rather, it reflected a more discriminating public demanding more information and greater opportunity for debate. Denmark's highly knowledgeable society provided a classic example of the "information paradox", in which more education led to increased scepticism. Greater public understanding of science reduced unquestioning trust in scientists.

37. When science is used to provide legitimacy for policy, conflicts can occur between scientists and the public because the two groups are accustomed to different ways of reaching closure in a debate: the public are familiar with political methods, whereas scientists use technical evidence.

38. We were was unable to meet the Danish Council of Ethics during our time in Denmark, but its role was described to us during this meeting. The Danish Council of Ethics was created by an Act of Parliament in 1987. It considers ethical problems arising from developments in the field of biomedicine, and is responsible for informing the Danish Parliament, public authorities and the population at large on these matters. The Council of Ethics is a deliberative body of experts whose meetings are held in public. The Council of Ethics has no judicial power and is not able to suspend research areas it considers unethical. Although most recommendations of the Council of Ethics were not followed by Parliament, its existence gave people reassurance that ethical concerns were being properly considered.



  • Asger Høeg, Executive Director

39. The Experimentarium is Denmark's only science centre. It was opened in 1991 and its stated aims are to "promote interest in natural science and technology in the community as widely as possible and to create a social and cultural meeting place between community, industry, commerce and scientists". One million of the 1.7 million people in greater Copenhagen have been to the Experimentarium since it opened. 60 per cent of Danish schools send parties to visit. The Experimentarium has 300 hands-on exhibits, and organises one or two special exhibitions each year.

40. When discussing more general aspects of science education in Denmark, Asger Høeg expressed the opinion that the reduction in student numbers studying science and technology in Danish Universities was related to high standards of living. Current students have never had shortages of food or energy, and take their presence for granted. In this context, problems in psychology seem more important than technical ones.

41. The Experimentarium is a well-resourced institution which is clearly successful at getting children to try all sorts of different experiments and demonstrations. A notable feature was the absence of computer-based exhibits, a deliberate policy which reflects the fact that computer simulations are not the same as "real experiments". Although the Experimentarium is designed for participation rather than formal learning, the links with school work are important. Teachers who visit get ideas for demonstrations and analogies; there are opportunities for teachers to have some valuable in-service training. Children who visit remember the exhibits and subsequent references to them in class assist learning.


42. Denmark, with a population of around 5 million, is one-tenth the size of Britain. She has evolved institutions to give effect to a society whose political philosophy is to seek consensus rather than confrontation. Though still less open and transparent than the USA, Denmark's bodies such as the Danish Board of Technology, the Danish Council of Ethics, and the Central Scientific and Ethical Committee offer reassurance and, to some extent, involvement to a public which tends to be suspicious of both government and experts, including scientists. Yet science and technology policy remains firmly in the hands of the Danish Parliament and the elected government and its agencies, and there is little in the way of "direct democratisation" of science, as is sometimes suggested. In particular, the much-vaunted Danish consensus conferences are used as only one, fairly expensive, means of assessing public reaction to scientific developments.

43. Yet the various institutions and procedures do feed into government policy-making, so giving an assurance that public views, attitudes, culture and values are regularly assessed and taken into account. As we state in our report, it is this aspect of the Danish experience which is relevant to our inquiry, rather than any of the specific Danish institutions or procedures. As so often is the case, it would be difficult to emulate successfully the solutions of another country, and attempting to apply them in the very different context of one's own would be unwise.

31 January 2000

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