Library Element Report

The landscape of Science, Ethics & Public engagement and its Potential for the Future

Uploaded by RRI Tools on 26 November 2020
Owned by Mette Simonsen . Last modified on 18 February 2021

The report was commissioned by the Kavli Foundation, and written by the by the Danish Board of Technology Foundation (Lise Bitsch, Kristoffer Rekve and Sigrid Vedel Neuhaus). The report was published in January 2021.


This report sat out to better understand how publics have been engaged in ethical issues that arise from scientific discoveries, to identify opportunities to engage the public intentionally, meaningfully, and effectively in discussions of ethical issues. To that end, the report maps the landscape of interaction between science, ethics, and public engagement, and examines how science in different fields have tackled engaging the public in ethical challenges, in order to identify opportunities for learning and advancing the interaction between these three areas of practice.

The report, provides a landscape overview of experiences with public engagement across scientific disciplines, focusing on the topic areas: Recombinant DNA, Nuclear Power, Biobanks, Nanotechnologies and Artificial Intelligence. 

We learned that publics have been engaged on ethical issues across scientific disciplines, and that they are willing and able to engage. We also saw that mapping aims and goals of such exercises is not straightforward, but that there exists a multitude of perspectives on the goals and outcome of the public engagement exercises. Our findings show examples of how public engagement can contribute to mutual understanding and trust building with citizens, that it can empower citizens to participate in discussions, and thereby democratize expertise, and finally, that it can contribute to developing science and policy, and last, but not least, that the scientists who engage take valuable insights with them into their own work.

The report also sets out nine lessons on public engagement:

1. The way public engagement activities are set up and organized influences the opportunity and potential for publics to contribute. It also affects how scientists and other stakeholders perceive the usefulness of public engagement exercises.

2. There is tension on the role and goals of public engagement.

3. Public engagement can develop better science, policy, and understanding of the ethical, social, and legal issues at stake. It can also contribute to building trust between science and society.

4. There is a link between science policy and political prioritization of scientific developments and available resources for public engagement activities.

5. Impacts of public engagement processes can be difficult to measure. Impact measurement is also dependent on how well desired impacts of the activities are defined beforehand.

6. Public engagement activities have a Western origin and legacy, but they have a proven ability for application in different cultural contexts and by different national actors across the world.

7. Linking up with decision-makers can be challenging, but it is often essential to reach the desired impacts of engagement activities.

8. Public engagement projects and activities are (often) situated in a context with competing

9. There is a potential for increased learning on practices of public engagement between the
academic and more practice-oriented communities of engagement.


The report suggests two major lines of future development that are probably overlapping. Public engagement could be used to provide concrete input to specific research projects, product ideas or infrastructure maintenance and development (like nuclear power facilities). It could also be a governance tool for organizations and for policymakers who wish to proactively steer scientific developments in the direction of societal objectives and needs in the prioritization of what scientific and technological developments to fund and develop.

It also concludes that there probably does not exist an opportune moment for engagement
as such. Rather there are moments in time when specific impacts are possible. Several
inventories of methods for public engagement exist, but little work has been done on the
connection between timing and possibility for impact. This would be a fruitful next step in
further developing public engagement practices. 

In addition, organizers must carefully define the aims of the engagement, define the role of the participants as data-subjects, participants, co-developers or decision-makers – and make sure the role given is on that can be realized – in the process as well as in the implementation of results. In addition to role, organizers must carefully consider how the sample of citizens is defined and according to what criteria? The question is if a representative sample always makes sense, if it can be achieved, whether sometimes the public audiences should be groups with a special interest or stake in an issue under discussion?

Therefore, organizers, face the task of clarifying the developmental stage of the scientific field or technological development they would like to engage with, and what the opportunities for impact could be. They must clearly describe the interests at stake, the role and sample characteristics of the citizen participants, the interests and priorities at play in the science, policy area and industry/business area, and the end goal of the results, as well as informing participants on how results are reached. Collaboration with external organizations in organization of public engagement events can help with transparency on the process and its outcomes.









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