Archive for the ‘Public engagement’ Category
Taking the plunge into public engagement can be a bit like joining a party in a new neighbourhood. Introduce yourself graciously, listen to the people you are talking with, relax into the event, and soon you’ll be having conversations you never expected. Why do it at all, though? Talk to scientists who have done it and the motives, and the benefits they saw, vary. Professor Geraint Rees of UCL’s Institute of Neuroscience, simply sees it as a natural thing to do. “I’m a great believer that science doesn’t exist unless it is communicated. Engaging with the public is an extension of normal scholarly activity.” For Rees, because public engagement “forces you to communicate in a clear way, and really think about what you are trying to say. You get feedback. People come up with surprising ideas. It all contributes to my overall research direction”.
Over the past few decades, numerous initiatives have sought to engage members of the public in decisions concerning bioscience and biotechnologies as early as possible in the development of scientific research, based on the belief that such participation is in the public interest. What these initiatives hope to achieve, however, varies with the motivations for seeking public input. In some cases, they reflect the belief that citizens who will be affected by decisions have the right to participate in those decisions, especially when the research is funded by their tax contributions (this would be what social scientists term a normative justification). In other cases, they reflect a desire to reduce conflict, help (re)build trust, and smooth the way for new innovations (in other words, the reason is instrumental). And in still others, they reflect the assumption that such participation from people who will use and/or be affected by a technology will raise questions about the real-life functioning of developments when they leave the laboratory, perhaps leading to innovations that perform better in complex real-world conditions, or that may be more socially, economically, and environmentally viable (we could term these “substantive justifications”)
Recent years have seen growing worldwide discussions, experiments, and expectations around various kinds of public engagement in the biosciences. This is especially so, in the governance of biotechnology—in research policy, risk regulation, and adoption of new innovations. How one defines public engagement necessarily affects the course of political, media, and civil society debate on these issues.
Despite the many different forms, roles, and perspectives around public engagement, then, it is clear that (in bioscience governance, as elsewhere), the real value of more inclusive participation lies in opening up—rather than closing down—a healthy, mature, accountable democratic politics of technology choice. So, the challenge lies not so much in procedural design, as in the creation of a dynamic new political arena—in which reasoned scepticism is as valued in public debates about technology as it is in science itself. In this way, we may hope to renew and recombine two strangely sundered aspects of the Enlightenment: science and democracy. Far from presenting obstacles (as often implied), it is the emergence of a diverse vibrant new “fifth estate” of practices and institutions around public engagement that best embodies a true Enlightenment vision of progress. Indeed, in bioscience as elsewhere, this exercise of greater social agency over the directions for knowledge and innovation moves beyond enlightenment over the mere possibility of social advance, towards real enablement of a greater diversity of directions for human progress.