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Sciencewise dialogue projects used as basis for new approach to understanding public responses to emerging technologies

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A new academic paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning (JEPP), 2015, draws on:

"a meta-analysis of 17 public dialogues on emerging science and technology sponsored by the UK Government Sciencewise initiative".

The analysis of these 17 projects provide a set of findings that are quite different from other forms of risk research and communication, and provide much deeper and richer understandings of public views on emerging technologies.

Although not specifically cited, the paper's analysis draws heavily on the Sciencewise Guiding Principles (and by implication the Quality framework) in that it focuses on analysis based on context, framing, style and remit of moderation (facilitation), sampling and group design, and analysis and interpretation.

The paper identifies public dialogue as a key element within responsible research and innovation (and its focus on anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity and responsiveness):

"A core argument of science and technology studies (STS) is that emerging technologies have potentially far-reaching social consequences and that a certain degree of work (political, cultural and institutional) may be required to ensure their alignment with broader societal values ... [through] the framework of responsible research and innovation, a suite of initiatives that attempts to introduce and integrate ethical reflection, public dialogue and reflexivity into multi-level forms of science governance and research policy design." (emphasis added).

The draws conclusions about the 'narratives' that the public use to discuss the ethical implications of emerging technologies, which need to be understood if public views on these technologies are to be fully understood in the policy context.

The findings from the analysis of the 17 Sciencewise projects "differ markedly from dominant approaches to risk communication and risk perception research, which have tended to presume that public acceptability to emerging technology depends o how people weigh up risks and benefits, or assume that people are either 'pro' or 'anti' to a particular technology. ... Rather, the narratives employed by publics to make sense of novel developments speak to the moral meanings of technology, its purposes, significance and possible transgressive potential."

The research identifies five narratives that underpin public views - be careful what you wish for, Pandora's box, messing with nature, kept in the dark, and the rich get richer. There are other narratives employed by publics, including the slippery slope and the Trojan Horse, but the first five appeared repeatedly and consistently in the research.

The paper concludes that "The key policy implication comes from the presence of these different implied politics of technology ... the public narratives we have described transcend questions of technical risk and are only imperfectly captured in the language of basic ethical principles".