Public opinion plays an important role in political debate and policy decision-making. Indeed, it is impossible to read about any policy debate in the popular press today without the results of a recently administered poll informing us of how the public currently weighs in on the subject. But public opinion research about science policy often is criticized for asking individuals to comment on complex technologies and ethical issues about which they may have little knowledge or few opportunities to consider in depth. Public engagement strategies that include some kind of tutorial presentations often are touted as an alternative method to assess public attitudes toward emerging technologies. The Genetics and Public Policy Center at The Johns Hopkins University undertook a deliberative public engagement activity in six American cities during the summer of 2004 using face-to-face discussions complemented by expert “minilectures” on various topics in the field of reproductive genetic testing. Reproductive genetic testing provides parents more options in having healthy babies; it also raises troubling questions about future uses of testing technologies and thus offers a good topic area for exploring public engagement in an emerging technology. Overall, our experience with this form of public engagement was extremely positive and we believe it helped participants become more informed about these issues: more than 70 percent of participants felt that the forum helped them clarify their own views and more than 90 percent found the forums personally valuable. The most striking was a change in attitude about regulation; support for regulation, especially to ensure safety and accuracy, increased significantly over the course of each Town Hall. The opinion that reproductive genetic testing helps parents make informed reproductive choices did not change significantly, but concern about unregulated technology getting “out of control” increased from 72 percent to 85 percent.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Public engagement on emerging technologies
The genetics town hall model

Rick E. Borchelt   Genetics and Public Policy Center, Johns Hopkins University

Public opinion plays an important role in political debate and policy decision-making. Indeed, it is impossible to read about any policy debate in the popular press today without the results of a recently administered poll informing us of how the public currently weighs in on the subject. But public opinion research about science policy often is criticized for asking individuals to comment on complex technologies and ethical issues about which they may have little knowledge or few opportunities to consider in depth. Public engagement strategies that include some kind of tutorial presentations often are touted as an alternative method to assess public attitudes toward emerging technologies. The Genetics and Public Policy Center at The Johns Hopkins University undertook a deliberative public engagement activity in six American cities during the summer of 2004 using face-to-face discussions complemented by expert “minilectures” on various topics in the field of reproductive genetic testing. Reproductive genetic testing provides parents more options in having healthy babies; it also raises troubling questions about future uses of testing technologies and thus offers a good topic area for exploring public engagement in an emerging technology. Overall, our experience with this form of public engagement was extremely positive and we believe it helped participants become more informed about these issues: more than 70 percent of participants felt that the forum helped them clarify their own views and more than 90 percent found the forums personally valuable. The most striking was a change in attitude about regulation; support for regulation, especially to ensure safety and accuracy, increased significantly over the course of each Town Hall. The opinion that reproductive genetic testing helps parents make informed reproductive choices did not change significantly, but concern about unregulated technology getting “out of control” increased from 72 percent to 85 percent.

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