What is needed for social consensus
A major scientific or medical discovery will often be followed by experts on the topic expressing their opinions on television or in the newspapers. While these opinions are important, so too are those of the general public. This is especially true when the technology has the potential to greatly affect society’s values.
Such a case happened last autumn, when at an academic conference, a participating scientist announced the genome editing of a human embryo that had since gestated and was born. This announcement elicited an immediate response by scientists and scientific societies around the world. However, the potential of editing embryos has great implications beyond just the scientific community and deserves the opinions of other stakeholders. Yet, there was nothing to indicate to me that those opinions were being attended.
In Japan, there are many venues where the science community and the general public can share their thoughts on a topic. However, there is no method that assures these discussions lead to subsequent, sustained exchange.
One researcher is looking at a systematic solution to this problem. Ben Hurlbut, Associate Professor at the School of Sciences, Arizona State University, has intensively researched the issue of genome editing from a bioethics perspective. Through academic meetings with research collaborators, he has investigated ways to expand the social consensus on genome editing. Social consensus is only the first step, and agreement on how to proceed must also be made. I should make clear that social consensus is not approving or disapproving the act, but identifies what is the problem, who are the stakeholders, and how to engage all of them.
Social debates involve many people and interests. The challenge is bringing them all to one table in an effective manner.