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Open Engagement: exploring public participation in the biosciences

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Over the past few decades, numerous initiatives have sought to engage members of the public in decisions concerning bioscience and biotechnologies as early as possible in the development of scientific research, based on the belief that such participation is in the public interest. What these initiatives hope to achieve, however, varies with the motivations for seeking public input. In some cases, they reflect the belief that citizens who will be affected by decisions have the right to participate in those decisions, especially when the research is funded by their tax contributions (this would be what social scientists term a normative justification). In other cases, they reflect a desire to reduce conflict, help (re)build trust, and smooth the way for new innovations (in other words, the reason is instrumental). And in still others, they reflect the assumption that such participation from people who will use and/or be affected by a technology will raise questions about the real-life functioning of developments when they leave the laboratory, perhaps leading to innovations that perform better in complex real-world conditions, or that may be more socially, economically, and environmentally viable (we could term these “substantive justifications”)

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