Theme School organizes consensus conference for Hamilton-Wentworth region


McMaster's Theme School on Science, Technology and Public Policy hopes to introduce an innovative approach to ensuring the public has an impact on government decisions.

On May 27, the school will hold a consensus conference, involving a panel of residents from Hamilton-Wentworth, to discuss the merits of incineration versus landfill in waste management strategies.

The consensus conference, which will provide residents with an opportunity to discuss and debate current issues and to play a role in the policy-making decisions of local government, is a relatively new concept, originating in Denmark. It has been limited almost exclusively to Europe thus far.

“Public input (into the decisions of the government) has been, to a large extent, token,” said Bob Hudspith, an engineering professor at McMaster and the theme school's director. “Either it is asked for after a decision is made, or it is promoted so widely that officials receive so much input that they can simply pick and choose what they want.”

McMaster students enrolled in the theme school have organized two previous such conferences. One centred on the question of whether all McMaster students should be provided laptop computers; the other explored the issue of McMaster's academic policy on online education.

This week the school will send out letters of explanation to 1,000 randomly-selected households in the area. A dozen people will be asked to participate in the conference based on their responses to the solicitations.

After spending a day researching and hearing evidence on the topic, the panel will formulate policy recommendations that will be later released publicly. (McMaster students will provide research support to the panel.)

Those conclusions won't be binding, but regional officials have indicated any viable solutions will be considered.

Currently, both landfill and incineration units are used in the Hamilton-Wentworth region.

Hudspith feels this conference can only be a fruitful experience for both the participants and the region regardless of the panel's conclusions.

“The citizen panel could, I guess, come up with recommendations that are completely off-the-wall,” he said. “If one presenter is more charismatic than another, they may tend to believe that information more than other facts.

“But these recommendations could get a lot of publicity in the area. If the region ignores them, there could be a public outcry. They could say 'If the panel suggested x then why did you do y?' That sort of interaction between officials and the public can only be seen as a positive.”