Science Minister David Willetts’ speech in January talked about eight technologies and their potential contribution to economic growth.

The eight are: big data and energy-efficient computing; satellite-derived data on Earth observation; robots and other autonomous systems; synthetic biology; regenerative medicine; agricultural technologies; new advanced materials; and application of advanced materials in energy storage.

Recent research

What struck me about these was that there has already been quite a bit of activity to understand the views of the public. Agricultural technologies include the perennial issue of GM; new advanced materials incorporate nanotechnology; and synthetic biology has emerged in its own right in recent years. Regenerative medicine and energy have been looked at many times.

So how can we ensure that these, and the other areas of data, satellites and robotics, learn from and build on what we already know about the importance of the public’s views?

As luck would have it, two recent exercises have catalogued the common themes that have emerged from previous public dialogue activity. Sciencewise commissioned a review of ethical dimensions for the Science and Trust Expert Group report in 2010, and Research Councils UK (RCUK) produced a review of their public dialogues in 2012. Taken together, these provide an insight into a set of common issues on which we can build any future engagement around the eight.

Common lessons

From the Sciencewise research, it is clear that people are likely to be positive about developments in science and technology that promise gains in choice, quality of life, health, longevity, convenience, time-saving and reduced environmental impact. However, potential impacts on freedom, privacy, social equity, vulnerable groups such as the mentally ill or very young, or on ‘natural and human values’ are regarded with varying degrees of suspicion or hostility.

Sciencewise identified three common lessons about public participants’ attitudes to science and policy which will not be new to readers of People & Science. The public thinks that science should serve a ‘social good’; it is uncertain about the government’s ability to manage risk, uncertainty, and regulation; and it wants more open discussion and public involvement in policy making relating to science and technology.

The RCUK work also found that there are a consistent set of views and responses from public participants across their dialogue projects. Apart from those identified by Sciencewise, the public gives conditional support for the area of research being discussed; is wary of business setting public research agendas; prefers incremental solutions to societal challenges; values ‘naturalness’ over high-tech solutions to social and environmental problems; and focusses on value for money in research and its applications.

Both reports argue that we must consider a number of issues when starting to develop or implement policy in the technology areas. These are governance, risks, regulation, proportionality, naturalness, quality of life/social benefits and the need for more public engagement and oversight.

Familiar themes

Different science topics also create their own areas of debate. Medical research, for example, raises issues about what illnesses (and age groups) are most deserving, how the safety of a donor should be protected, and the moral rights of embryos and human genes. IT science tends to raise issues around consent and privacy, and the misuse and governance of data. And food and environmental science stirs debates on the containment of risks, and impacts on wider social and natural systems.

Behind every great new technology are familiar ethical themes demanding attention. Many of these are likely to surface again. But as a result of work already done, we have a greater understanding of the importance of the involvement of the public. We also have the ability to apply this to the development of the eight technologies.