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

Engagement with non-specialist groups has an important role to play in developing policy for emerging biotechnologies.

No single individual or community can have relevant expertise in all the areas that are relevant to decisions about emerging biotechnologies. All decisions therefore involve an engagement between different perspectives and interests. Engaging public perspectives about new biotechnologies can contribute to a more ethically robust public decision making process.

How ‘the public’ is constituted in relation to a question of biotechnology, and how participants in public engagement are informed (bearing in mind the role of popular or sectional media perspectives), can have a significant bearing on how opinions are formed.

There are many different approaches to public engagement. Each has their own advantages and limitations, and different methods will be needed in the many different circumstances in which public engagement is undertaken. But decisions about the conditions under which engagement takes place always involve dilemmas. We identify a number of these dilemmas, including:

  • upstream v. downstream engagement
  • deliberation v. decisiveness
  • freedom to identify issues v. policy relevance
  • representativeness v. interestedness
  • informing v. eliciting
  • top-down v. bottom-up
  • commissioning research v. involving civil society groups

We conclude

Public engagement can be an important way of helping ensure that social, as well as commercial, values are brought to bear in considering policies relating to emerging biotechnologies.

Expert deliberation and public engagement exercises alike should report their conclusions not in the form of a simple prescriptive findings but as conditional advice.