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Consensus Conference

Consensus Conference

What situations is this tool used in?

Consensus conferences are used to inform and consult members of the public on topics that are complex, controversial, or expert dominated – for example issues around emerging science and technology. They enable panels of citizens to question expert witnesses in a similar way to citizens juries, with the difference being that they are held in public and open to the media.

Who is this tool aimed at?

This methodology is based on a technology assessment model originating from the healthcare sector in the USA during the 1960s. This was developed further by the Danish Board of Technology, which held its first participatory consensus conference in 1987, focusing on gene technology. Since then, consensus conferences have tended to be used by governmental, academic, or science and technology bodies – although any organisation could arrange one with enough resources.

How Is the Tool Used?

A consensus conference involves a panel of citizens questioning expert witnesses on a particular topic at a public conference. Participants are selected from a group of citizens invited to apply. Once the panel is selected (usually 10-20 people based on a variety of demographic criteria), they will attend two preparatory events, where they receive detailed information about the topic under discussion.

The panel decides what questions to ask and which experts to call to the conference. The conference itself is held in public, usually over a few days. The panel then reaches conclusions or recommendations, which are circulated widely.

Who has used the tool?

In 1994, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) partnered with the Science Museum to commission a consensus conference on the issue of plant biotechnology. The 16-person panel identified seven questions to discuss with experts at the conference, and produced a set of recommendations that gave qualified support for plant technology, with specific caveats around regulation, international controls and consumer information.

Summary of BBSRC consensus conference on plant biotechnology 

Where to find out more

Overview of consensus conference process  

Consensus conference manual 

Boston Consensus Conference on Biomonitoring - what is a consensus conference