Hastings Center News
In Search of Authentic Public Engagement
Hastings Center research scholar Karen Maschke urged more careful thinking and greater financial commitment to the design of feasible and effective public engagement on public policy choices regarding technological innovation. Her remarks were part of a panel discussion on Tuesday, November 19, at the 2019 Advancing Ethical Research Conference in Boston, sponsored by the non-profit organization Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research (PRIM&R) .
“Making the calls for public engagement is easy,” Maschke said, “but doing it means disrupting existing centers of power, and requires hearing a multitude of voices that challenge the underpinnings of innovation – which requires will, time, and money.”
The calls for engagement have come as “technologies of concern” are developed, Maschke said. These innovations include brain interface devices, the use of machine-learning algorithms to analyze and decode brain activity, human-animal “brain chimeras” that result from inserting human neural stem cells into the brains of animals, and germline genome editing in nonhuman organisms, e.g., to eradicate the species of mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus to humans. And these technologies include germline genome editing of humans – raising, among other things, concerns about harms to a pregnant woman, her developing fetus, and the child who is born, as well as a host of societal harms.
Maschke’s remarks were part of a plenary session entitled “50 Years of Bioethics – Reflections from The Hastings Center” at the annual PRIM&R conference. The panel was moderated by Hastings Center president Mildred Z. Solomon, with reflections from Solomon and Maschke and Hastings Center fellow Steven Joffe, Interim Chair, Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine; Nancy M.P. King, JD, Professor of Social Sciences and Health Policy, Wake Forest School of Medicine; and Alex John London, Director, Center for Ethics and Policy, Carnegie Mellon University.
Maschke asked to what extent the general public – as opposed to scientists, technocrats, and other policy elites – should be involved in determining which technologies are developed and for what purposes.
Maschke called for an examination of the aspirational goals of public engagement. The reality is that public engagement is rarely promoted to mean its strongest form – public authorization is required before conducting research or facilitating the diffusion of technologies. Public engagement is sometimes promoted to educate the public and “get them on board” rather than to really hear a multitude of views. Maschke noted that experts “behind closed doors” typically conduct oversight of research and of the diffusion of new technologies into various settings, that the concept and practice of “open science” remains contested.
During the plenary session’s opening, President Solomon said that public engagement is critical to democracy, but that calls for it have become almost gratuitous and ritualistic because it is not backed up with resources and political will. She said there was a “dire need for clarity” about the proper relationship between public opinion, professional expertise, and the making of policy.
“These issues would be difficult enough if they were occurring in a time of high civic trust, but they are much more difficult now in the face of civic discord, polarization, and distrust,” Solomon said.
Maschke said she was “increasingly weary – and sometimes wary – of hearing yet another call for public engagement, enhanced or new forms of oversight, and greater transparency in the scientific enterprise that fades away over time until the next echo of the call emerges.”