Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good


Published 13/12/2012

Emerging biotechnologies cover
Biotechnologies are significant in many aspects of life, from food and energy production to medicine, industry, and economic development.
Women microscope

There is a significant public interest in emerging biotechnologies. Governance should be guided by a ‘public ethics’ approach.

The public interest in emerging biotechnologies arises from a number of potential sources, including:

  • their potential to give rise to benefits and harms at a public scale;
  • the public resources invested in them;
  • the significance attached to living things;
  • their potential to transform the conditions and horizons of common life in ways that may benefit some people at the expense of others.

We therefore suggest that development and innovation should be guided by public ethics, i.e. based on the public good, taking into account broad social contexts, circumstances, implications and alternatives rather than focussing narrowly on the impacts on individuals or on specific implications such as economic development.

Values of public ethics

We recognise that there is a positive moral value in developing biotechnologies to avoid or alleviate harms, and to increase human welfare and well being. This consideration should be applied consistently across possible alternative visions guiding public decision making by reference to three underlying values:

  • Equity – equal respect for the rights, interests and preferences of others, including in questions of fair and just distribution of expected benefits and costs.
  • Solidarity – avoiding social divisions and exploitation, and actively promoting the welfare of all those who are less advantaged, including bearing costs of research and knowledge gathering on behalf of others.
  • Sustainability – avoiding significant or irreversible depletion of nonrenewable natural resources or damage to ecosystems or the environment [Chapter 4].

Public ethics and public discourse ethics

A public ethics approach means that, given the public interest in biotechnologies, decisions that shape and constrain the development of emerging biotechnologies should be framed by a publicly established response to uncertainty and ambiguity rather than a private one dominated by particular interests or disciplines.

Applying public ethics to the governance of emerging biotechnologies does not mean that all the conditions that affect emergence should be set by the public, or in public, or that research and development should only take place in the public sector.

What we propose is a ‘public discourse ethics’ as a way of establishing the context for

public decisions (and for evaluating them) in accordance with the public good.

Procedural virtues

We identify a number of virtues to foster a public discourse ethics and their implications in practice:

  • Openness and inclusion – members of society should have the information required and, where appropriate, access to participate in biotechnological governance.
  • Accountability – there should be explicit acceptance and acknowledgement of where responsibility for governance lies and how it might legitimately and democratically be influenced.
  • Public reasoning – reasoning should be clear, explicit and aimed at finding common ground rather than promoting sectional interests, including in the presentation of evidence.
  • Candour – uncertainties associated with emerging biotechnologies should be represented truthfully and in good faith.
  • Enablement – appraisal of emerging biotechnologies should highlight alternative social and technological choices and the implications of each, and encourage wider political debate.
  • Caution – the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity associated with emerging biotechnologies should mean there is a responsibility to gather more extensive knowledge prior to making policy commitments [Chapter 4].