When should funders talk about new technologies?
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By Rob Smith and Sarah Hartley

Roughly a decade ago, people started talking about a new technology for genetic engineering, CRISPR/Cas9. Popular discussion quickly lurched into familiar poles of promise and peril. A much-circulated Nature feature led, “a powerful gene-editing technology is the biggest game-changer to hit biology since PCR. But with its huge potential come pressing concerns”. Widespread calls for public debate followed. In March 2015 a high-profile group of scientists recycled their earlier response to concerns about the use of recombinant DNA technologies in the 1970s, calling for a moratorium on genome editing of the human germline until a summit could debate its use. Later that year the US National Academies convened such an international summit to explore the social, legal and ethical issues associated with genome editing. In 2016, the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics published its report ‘Genome Editing: An Ethical Review’ and in 2018, the Royal Society reported on a ‘Genetic Technologies Public Dialogue’ that it funded, emphasising a range of percentage points in support of or against particular uses – 71% in favour of ‘gene drives’ to limit the spread of malaria, 51% in favour of genome editing to increase food production but only 28% supporting genome-edited pets like micro pigs and fluorescent fish.

This loop – the emergence of a high-profile technology, coupled to polarised discourses of promise and peril, followed by calls for debate and public engagement – will be familiar to anyone following the place of new technologies in society. Writing in 2004, the late Steve Rayner highlighted its prevalence, coining ‘the novelty trap’. Public engagement plays a particularly important place in the novelty trap because it is seen as a way to correct any misalignments between scientific and public values. The European Academies Science Advisory Council 2017 report on genome editing is clear: “there has to be trust between scientists and the public”, it writes, “and to build trust, there has to be public engagement”. Public engagement, in short, is viewed as a kind of thermometric device to maintain trust and help science policy organisations understand whether their core activities are likely to be challenged by public contestation.

For Rayner, the novelty trap stops societies from really coming to terms with the salient questions raised by new technologies. Instead, we repeat similar versions of past debates ad infinitum. While the publics convened in public dialogues repeatedly raise questions like, ‘who will benefit?’, ‘what will those benefits look like?’, and ‘who pays if things go wrong?’, science policy organisations seem only to hear whether the public supports a particular technology or not. To improve policy, we need not just calls for participation, but also tangible efforts to connect participation to governance. And to do this questions of when to pursue public engagement need to be answered not just by looking outwards, at a political situation, but also by looking inwards, at the institution with the power to make decisions: Why is there a need to pursue engagement? What do you hope to get out of it? What needs to be discussed? With whom? And how could that activity tangibly change decision making?

In the debate around genome editing, Britain’s Research Councils have been notably quiet. These organisations are the largest public funders of research in the country and over the course of the twenty-first century have become one of the main drivers of public and stakeholder engagement in science, technology and innovation. Staff at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which funds non-medical bioscience, have convened engagement exercises on stem cells, synthetic biology, nanoscience, food and nutrition, and bioenergy but a concerted activity on genome editing has not materialised. In a study that has just been published in Public Understanding of Science, Sarah Hartley and I unpack some of the processes that led to this relative silence on genome editing engagement. We collaborated with staff at the BBSRC to understand when the right moment for an organisation to begin public engagement might be. We developed a process that could guide the organisation’s thinking about why talking could be valuable, what to talk about, who to talk with, and ultimately whether to talk. In piloting our approach with plant genome editing, we show how this perceived lack of activity was, in fact, an active decision.

Our research first showed that BBSRC staff wanted to connect engagement with governance, using the exercise as a way to improve the organisation’s decision making about the kinds of genome editing research to pursue. We then used their funding portfolio to think about how the conversation might move beyond a simple support-for or rejection-of a technology by ‘putting the technology in its social context’ and connecting engagement to the different ideas of sustainability and science-society relationships that were in play around genome editing. Next, we identified a broad range of people with a diverse range of knowledge that could inform their decision making about genome editing. But we also discovered that it would be extremely difficult for BBSRC to design an engagement exercise that would actually shape its decision-making around genome editing. External events made staff feel as though they should be acting, but other than having an externally-facing position statement, it was unclear what internal decision BBSRC needed to take on the topic. Instead, of pursuing a standalone exercise on genome editing, staff suggested that more substantive changes would come from trying to reform its advisory structures – opening them up to broader forms of expertise than prevailed at the time – and broadening its agenda-setting processes to explicitly think about ideas of science-society relationships and sustainability.

This was not the result we had anticipated. When we started we expected one of two scenarios. The pessimistic scenario was that we would see quite instrumental visions for engagement within BBSRC, perhaps in a feeling that outside voices were needed to back-up BBSRC’s existing position on genome editing and biotechnology more broadly. More optimistically, we thought we would find some promises of a better future being made with the help of CRISPR, identify some outside voices that could perhaps question the promises or broaden the idea of ‘better’, and build a hook into the organisation’s decision making. In both of these scenarios, we were envisaging a one-shot, time-limited exercise resembling many prior engagement exercises. Instead, by turning a problem of participation into a problem of governance, and by deciding not to talk, BBSRC seemed to arrive at a more sustainable proposal, one that might – if they could build momentum to pursue it – actually shape the future of research policy.

About the authors

Robert Smith is a Research Fellow at STIS, University of Edinburgh, whose research examines the social and political dimensions of the biology and biotechnology. You can follow Robert on Twitter here.

Sarah Hartley is an Associate Professor at the Department of Science, Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Exeter. Her research examines the governance of science and technology. You can follow Sarah on Twitter here.

This blog is based on: ‘Knowing when to talk? Plant genome editing as a site for pre-engagement institutional flexibility’. Public Understanding of Science, Early View.


Cover Picture: Chris Barbalis via Unsplash.