Need Public Policy for Human Gene Editing, Heatwaves, or Asteroids? Try Thinking Like a Citizen

Article by Nicholas Weller, Michelle Sullivan Govani, and Mahmud Farooque: “In a ballroom at the Arizona Science Center one afternoon in 2017, more than 70 Phoenix residents—students, teachers, nurses, and retirees—gathered around tables to participate in a public forum about how cities can respond to extreme weather such as heat waves. Each table was covered in colorful printouts with a large laminated poster resembling a board game. Milling between the tables were decisionmakers from local government and the state. All were taking part in a deliberative process called participatory technology assessment, or pTA, designed to break down the walls between “experts” and citizens to gain insights into public policy dilemmas involving science, technology, and uncertainty.

Foreshadowing their varied viewpoints and experiences, participants prepared differently for the “extreme weather” of the heavily air conditioned ballroom, with some gripping cardigans around their shoulders while others were comfortable in tank tops. Extreme heat is something all the participants were familiar with—Phoenix is one of the hottest cities in the country—but not everyone understood the unequal way that heat and related deaths affect different parts of the Valley of the Sun. Though a handful of the participants might have called themselves environmentalists, most were not regular town-hall goers or political activists. Instead, they represented a diverse cross section of people in Phoenix. All had applied to attend—motivated by a small stipend, the opportunity to have their voice heard, or a bit of both.

Unlike typical town hall setups, where a few bold participants tend to dominate questioning and decisionmakers often respond by being defensive or vague, pTA gatherings are deliberately organized to encourage broad participation and conversation. To help people engage with the topic, the meeting was divided into subgroups to examine the story of Heattown, a fictionalized name for a real but anonymized community contending with the health, environmental, and economic impacts of heat waves. Then each group began a guided discussion of the different characters living in Heattown, vulnerabilities of the emergency-response and infrastructure systems, and strategies for dealing with those vulnerabilities….(More)”.