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.