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Ethical Dimensions in Sciencewise

A review of public perceptions of ethical issues from the Sciencewise dialogues
Daniel Start, Dialogue Engagement Specialist

In 2010, Sciencewise completed 13 public dialogues1 on controversial and emerging science and technology policy areas dating back to 2005. The dialogues focused in on social, ethical, risk or governance issues, but was there consistency in what the public had to say about science?

This review examines the public attitudes to ethical and trust issues emerging from those dialogues.

Go to the review

In summary:

Broadly, people were likely to be positive about developments in science and technology that promised gains in choice, quality of life, health, longevity, convenience, time-saving and reduced environmental impact. However, potential impacts on freedom, privacy, social equity, vulnerable groups such as the mentally ill or very young, or on ‘natural and human values’ were regarded with varying degrees of suspicion or hostility.

Three common lessons about the public participants’ attitudes to the science and policy were identified. First, they called for science to serve a ‘social good’ which suggests that public participants see the Government as playing an important part in shaping the social purposes of science and technology.

Second, the public was uncertain of the Government’s ability to manage risk, uncertainty, and regulation. The public also has little trust and confidence in the resilience of Government to stand firm against perceived vested interest in industry. It was also concerned about the role of private ownership in research and development.

Third, there was consistent demand (from those who had experienced public dialogue) for more open discussion and public involvement in policy-making relating to science and technology. The challenge for Government is to incorporate the public’s ability to understand the issues and meaningfully feed this into upstream policy discussions. One approach is to find ways to incorporate members of the public directly in these discussions - in a cost-effective manner – and open up decision-making processes to wider public scrutiny.

See the full Ethical Dimensions in Sciencewise review here.

This review forms part of the Science and Trust Expert Group Report & Action Plan - Starting a National Conversation about Good Science.

The Science and Trust Expert Group, convened by BIS, evolved from the 2008 Science and Society consultation and its subsequent analysis. This Group was one of five, and had a remit to examine issues around trust and governance of science. The group felt that, to strengthen its evidence base, it would be an opportune time to reflect on existing lessons and evidence from Sciencewise dialogues. The review revealed several common themes and provided a vivid counterpoint to other, more quantitative evidence from the UK and abroad.

The full report, published in March 2010, can be found here.


1 At the time of writing the projects were - Risky business, Trustguide, Nanodialogues, Nanodialogue engagement group, Democs, Community exchange, drugsfutures, sciencehorizons, Hybrid and chimera, Stem cell, Forensic use of DNA, Industrial biotechnology and Big energy shift.