Is Going Upstream the Best Way Forward?

MAHNOOR KHAN

Theoretically, public juries can be provided with the raw data to make ethical decisions, but such measures can become a starting point for mass exploitation.

Debate 3, Mahnoor Khan FeaturedIn a democracy where public participation has become synonymous with effective governance, upstream public engagement has become all the more appealing as a means of directing research. Under the model of upstream engagement, the government supervises the creation of public groups, sometimes called juries, to explore new research during its developmental stages (i.e. the upstream part of the process). Jurors are educated about the technologies and social concerns  surrounding the research, and under ideal circumstances, the consensuses they reach are presented to the state for implementation. Even if juries’ proposals are not implemented, governments can use them to gauge public sentiment and hence develop more effective legislation concerning research development and budgets. Researchers can use juries’ data to give their work a more socially acceptable direction. But is upstream public engagement really the best way forward?

Public involvement is simple in theory, but not so much in practice. What does ‘the public’ even mean? Is it the NGOs and international organizations that have the power to manipulate such a platform and skew the debate in their own favor? Is it ordinary people, like those chosen for jury duty? We cannot forget that voting on research priorities is not the same as voting for a candidate in an election. For one, the mandate of different research projects is continually developing. Then there is the so-called language barrier. Specialized education cannot simply be doled out to make every juror a technocrat.

Theoretically, this can be dealt with by providing juries with the raw data to make ethical decisions, but such measures can become a starting point for mass exploitation. Depending on the sort of content furnished to jurors, research organizations can frame their ideas to ensure public approval. Such a system means that well-endowed institutions with better marketing strategies will always win out.

Furthermore, upstream engagement may not be as democratic as it seems. We elect politicians to represent us within the decision-making process. By forming ad hoc committees to decide the direction of research, we take away the trust that we have invested in politicians with our votes. Without that trust, the institution of democracy is weakened.

All the same, we cannot simply write off upstream engagement. People are more sensitive to ethics than are governments, and it is important that the voice of the public is heard on issues like genetic enhancement, eugenics, and stem cell research. And when a technology is implemented, active public engagement ensures that time and resources go into developing an idea, thus strengthening the link between the government and the people. In the meantime, our best option is to have patience—observe what upstream public engagement can do for democracies with as many open possibilities as ours.

Further Reading
Holliman, Richard. “What Is Upstream Public Engagement with Science and Technology?” Isotope Website. 14 July 2009.

Lawrence, Beth. “‘Upstream Engagement’ and New Corporate Technologies.” Magazine 49. Corporate Watch.

Pieczka, Magda. “Science and Public Policy.” Oxford Journals. 2012.

Powell,, Anna, Dr. “What Do We Mean by ‘Public Engagement’?” Research to Action. 24 June 2013.

Rothstein. “Quality of Government and Epistemic Democracy.” Yale University. Oct 20-22, 2011.

Mahnoor Khan is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at mahnoorkhan@college.harvard.edu.