Research, engagement and public bioethics: promoting socially robust science

Journal of Medical Ethics 37 (11):698-701 (2011)

Abstract

Citizens today are increasingly expected to be knowledgeable about and prepared to engage with biomedical knowledge. In this article, I wish to reframe this ‘public understanding of science’ project, and place fresh emphasis on public understandings of research: an engagement with the everyday laboratory practices of biomedicine and its associated ethics, rather than with specific scientific facts. This is not based on an assumption that non-scientists are ‘ignorant’ and are thus unable to ‘appropriately’ use or debate science; rather, it is underpinned by an empirically-grounded observation that some individuals may be unfamiliar with certain specificities of particular modes of research and ethical frameworks, and, as a consequence, have their autonomy compromised when invited to participate in biomedical investigations. Drawing on the perspectives of participants in my own sociological research on the social and ethical dimensions of neuroscience, I argue that public understanding of biomedical research and its ethics should be developed both at the community level and within the research moment itself in order to enhance autonomy and promote more socially robust science. Public bioethics will have to play a key role in such an endeavour, and indeed will contribute in important ways to the opening up of new spaces of symmetrical engagement between bioethicists, scientists and wider publics—and hence to the democratisation of the bioethical enterprise

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