Illustrative image for Public Deliberation on Gene Editing in the Wild

Public Deliberation on Gene Editing in the Wild

Principal Investigators: Gregory Kaebnick, Michael Gusmano

Co-Investigators: Karen Maschke, Carolyn Neuhaus, Mildred Solomon

Funder: National Science Foundation

Initiatives are being developed to use gene editing technologies to modify populations of insects and other wild organisms, in some cases by creating and releasing large numbers of them and in some cases by means of gene drives that might force a modification from a few individual organisms through a population. The proposals have significant potential benefits, risks, and uncertainties, both for human welfare and for aspects of the shared environment that are valued in themselves. Given the values at stake, most commentators hold that the proposals require public engagement that takes a deliberative form — giving the public a chance to learn and think collectively about the proposals and shape policy decisions. A 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argued that such engagement should  in communities where organisms might be released, among larger groups of stakeholders, and among broader publics.

This project examined two overarching questions: For what kinds of proposals to modify wild populations is deliberation by broader publics appropriate? (2) How should deliberation be designed and conducted for broader publics?

The work produced in this project finds that all proposals to engage in gene editing in the wild remain appropriate candidates for deliberation by broader publics. Although proposals that are more technologically novel, risky, uncertain, and controversial are obvious candidates for deliberation by broader publics, none can easily be excluded. In fact, if deliberation by broader publics were aimed at developing general principles for governance of gene editing in the wild, including a wide assortment of different kinds of proposals would likely help inform the deliberation.

Three aspects of the framing and design of public deliberation were deemed particularly challenging for broad public deliberation about gene editing in the wild: choosing participants, addressing power imbalances among participants, and accounting for and capturing moral perspectives that are hard to express. These issues are highlighted in the introductory essay of the report. Other essays in the report discuss possible solutions to the challenges. For example, two essays (by Kaiping Chen and Michael Burgess; and by Ben Curran Wills, Michael Gusmano, and Mark Schlesinger) argue that deliberations should be designed so as to forefront narratives–storytelling–as a strategy for sharing moral perspectives. Another essay (Teshanee Williams) argues that deliberation may require discrete deliberative events tailored to the styles of discourse that suit different people. Several essays (Rebecca Wilbanks; Natalie Kofler and Colleen Grogan; Riley Taitingfong and Anika Ullah) develop recommendations for addressing power imbalances, including those affecting developing countries and Indigenous peoples. One essay (Kofler and Grogan) argues that the selection of participants and framing of discourse should in effect make natural phenomena themselves part of the deliberation, which might require giving greater weight to Indigenous participants. Another essay, however, argues that the selection of participants and framing of discourse should be randomly chosen from the overall relevant public (James Fishkin).

A further challenge for broader public deliberation is the need to integrate public deliberation into U.S. regulatory mechanisms. The public currently has a very limited role in providing input about proposed releases. Although analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration suggests that some U.S. federal agencies may have the ability to employ deliberative activities (Karen Maschke and Michael Gusmano), significant policy change, institutional redesign, and attitudinal shifts are needed to ensure that the public has a more meaningful role (Jennifer Kuzma).

How to use the tools of public deliberation to improve policy-making is an enormous challenge, and the project certainly has not definitely resolved the challenges in framing and design that motivated the project. Indeed, it does more to identify further practical and conceptual challenges for public deliberation about gene editing in the wild than to settle or simplify those challenges. One implication is that efforts to guide policy through public deliberation by broader publics remains somewhat experimental and highly uncertain (Gregory Kaebnick). Deliberative engagement with somewhat more narrowly defined stakeholder groups may provide an alternative strategy for fostering morally and substantively better decision-making (S. Kathleen Barnhill-Dilling, Adam Kokotovich, and Jason Delborne).

Publications and Curricular Materials from the Project:

Special Report: “Gene Editing in the Wild: Shaping Decisions Through Broad Public Deliberation,” November-December 2021

Case studies

Semester Course Syllabus

Short Course Syllabus

Short Course Slides

Science Policy & Values: Resources


The Elephant from Heaven and the Chicken from Hell,” Gregory E. Kaebnick, Bioethics Forum, September 16, 2021.

For Good Science, You Need Engaged Citizens,” Gregory E. Kaebnick and Michael K. Gusmano, Scientific American blog, July 22, 2021, .

“Release of Genetically Altered Mosquitoes in the Keys Needs Better Public Vetting Than It’s Had,” Gregory E. Kaebnick, Miami Herald, May 11, 2021.