Budget Cuts Threaten Denmark's Science Assessment Body

A small Danish outfit that is acknowledged to be a world leader in fostering greater public involvement in science policy has been put on the chopping block. This week, Parliament is expected to pass a bill to begin the process of eliminating the Danish Board of Technology (DBT) as part of a 3% cut in the country's 2012 research budget.

Dismantling the 20-person organization, which includes 12 researchers, will save the government 6 million Danish kroner (a little less than €1 million) this year and €1.3 million each year following. "We were sacrificed in order to make that cut smaller," says the board's director, Lars Klüver.

If you've never heard of the DBT, you're not alone. Created in 1986, its role as an independent adviser necessitates a low profile within the Danish government. "We are not a think tank with an ideology, not a political party, we don't have to profile ourselves to get our message through to Parliament," says Klüver. But being "quite gray in the landscape" may have downplayed their importance. "If we survive this, we will have to think of some way we can still do our job and be more visible," he says.

When it comes to citizen engagement in science policymaking, "nobody has been as influential," says Richard Sclove, founder of the Loka Institute, a research advocacy nonprofit organization in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 2009, in preparation for the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, DBT organized the Worldwide Views on Global Warming project in which 4000 randomly selected citizens from 38 countries generated and then voted on questions that should be presented to policymakers in Copenhagen. DBT also engineered a system of public engagement known as the Danish Consensus Conference, which brings together stakeholders and citizens to identify questions on controversial science issues and pose them to policymakers. This system has been widely used across Europe, as well as in the United States for policymaking on nanotechnology and human enhancement.

"They're expert researchers in social processes," says Sclove. "It's a major Danish research institution being potentially terminated supposedly in the interest of research."

Klüver expects a bill dissolving DBT to be passed in January or February, but he says the decision "can be changed." In the meantime, the board is finishing a complex modelling project that will advise the government on the future of sustainable transportation in Denmark. "We will end that no matter what," he says. But a current project which will collect citizen views on biodiversity in advance of the 2012 U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in India could be doomed.

"It's a loss for the person in the street," says Sclove about the fate of the board. "To the science community, it's of tremendous value in the sense of teaching those who are listening that ... citizen involvement can lead to better understanding of social and environmental implications of technology."