The UK government recently announced the launch of its second energy review in three years. Many have commented on the substantive issues and technologies; we wish to draw attention to the limitations of the review process itself. Our concerns draw on three decades of study of the governance of science and technology, and we recognize that, although the review encompasses complex issues involving high stakes and disputed values, it supports a limited degree of public engagement.
Three months have been allocated for decisions that may have implications for thousands of years. Although there is urgency to this issue, and legislative timetables create potential time constraints, the length of the decision-making process should be determined by the scope and complexity of the problem, and the public should be given sufficient notice and resources to respond meaningfully.
An authoritative and legitimate process must be open to a range of possible outcomes, but there is a widespread perception that the government has made its mind up in favour of nuclear energy. If the consultation is to have integrity and to generate trust, the task of initiating the review should be separated from the tasks of convening and implementing it. Furthermore, good review processes must have the authority that comes from participants knowing in advance that their inputs will be taken seriously, and the initiators should be explicit about how the review's findings will be used in future decision-making processes.
The explicit context of such an enquiry, or ‘framing’ as social scientists call it, is itself contentious. Some may question whether framing the energy-review process in terms of climate-change obligations or the security of gas supplies is appropriate. If a process is to be recognized as legitimate, it must engage participants in the task of choosing the appropriate framing. Scenario approaches like those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to think about alternative policies can produce a manageable number of distinct, internally consistent and plausible alternatives.
Critics of earlier consultation efforts have focused on whether the methods used were representative. We argue that there is no single correct method: there is strength in using an array of tools to address different aspects of the problem and to allow diverse forms of input. We would also urge the government to recognize that non-specialist forms of knowledge, based on people's everyday experiences, can provide a valuable complement to officially recognized expertise. Without substantive public engagement, the government risks reinforcing the mistrust, controversy and technological failure that we have seen all too often in recent years.