Published on March 27, 2018

Sustaining public dialogue about technological innovation

Citizens & science

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

“Public engagement, just like science, can be messy and head in unexpected directions. That cannot, and must not, be a reason not to do it: science has a duty to respond to the views of the public it seeks to serve and represent.”

Nature 555, 413-414 (2018)

Image showing nodes in a network and the connections between them.

Last week’s issue of Nature ran a series of companion articles exploring the urgent need for effective public engagement on the implications of gene editing. The issue contains two opinion pieces which argue that our current approaches to public engagement won’t work. They describe very similar approaches for a more sustained and deeper public conversation about how the technology of gene editing should develop.

In my opinion piece, I draw on Involve’s extensive experience in the open government movement  to describe how engaging the public on their terms and through their networks will be a more effective approach to developing a sustainable public debate about the future of gene editing. In theirs, Sheila Jasanoff and Benjamin Hurlbut focus on how to promote a richer, more complex conversation which does not originate from scientific research agendas but that instead invites multiple viewpoints.

Nature’s editorial rounds this off by calling for engagement which is more about consultation and democracy, and less about the marketing of science.

This is an important and timely intervention because we now have the ability to edit the genome of any living organism, base pair by base pair, in an exquisitely precise way. This offers up the potential that we can eliminate human genetic diseases, grow crops and farm animals with higher yields and greater resistance to pests, and even manufacture new materials in vats of bacteria.

Given its power, gene editing is not just an interesting scientific advance, it will change whole industries, the way we deliver health care, and potentially the landscape around us as agriculture adapts to new products on offer. The technology will therefore reach deep into every aspect of our lives.

While last week’s issue of Nature focuses on gene editing, the issues all three articles raise apply equally to a number of other areas of technological development, for example, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the development of technical fixes for climate change. Each of these areas will have deep, pervasive and disruptive impacts on the lives of every citizen.

The history of decision making around science and technology demonstrates that, all too often, the development of a technology is steered using a framework which is based on a narrow conception of risk and benefit. We need to ditch this approach and invest in developing and sustaining an evidence-based conversation between the public, stakeholders, scientists and decision makers that can expose the much wider range of social and ethical dilemmas such technologies bring. This deeper conversation will, in turn, help us all to contribute to, and take better decisions about how and when to deploy the technologies to ensure the greatest public benefit ensues.

I look forward to your responses to the opinion piece and debating the different ways we might move towards a more sustained dialogue with the public about some of the most exciting and challenging technological developments of recent years.

Picture credit: By Martin Grandjean [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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