KAVLI – How can public engagement be used in the development of better science?

Today, ethics is a completely ingrained element in a number of scientific disciplines, such as medicine and biochemistry, while ethical discussions in other branches of science are rather limited to budding from time to time. Furthermore, it varies greatly who gets influence when ethical issues are raised and discussed in different environments. Where some people are good at opening up and involving affected social actors, elsewhere they do less to open up discussions in broader forums.

In the big picture, however, it is difficult to pinpoint where the nuances of these approaches vary. Therefore, the Kavli Foundation, which works to disseminate science and the understanding of it in society, has set us to make an overview of approaches to ethics and civic engagement within various scientific disciplines. As part of the work the Danish Board of Technology will make a graphic presentation of ethical discussions and approaches that are represented in various disciplines, on the basis of a literature search.


The Danish Board of Technology has in collaboration with the Kavli Foundation published a report that explores the state of engaging publics with ethical issues in science through dialogue, and mapping ways forward for using engagement and dialogue with citizens as a way to develop better science and technologies.

We are living in a time where new scientific discoveries and technological developments are advancing at a staggering pace. Increasingly, policy, publics, and scientists ask questions about the benefits and risks of new and emerging science and technologies. Academics and practitioners of public engagement have argued that to address the publics’ questions and concerns, we need a new approach to communication. Such an approach builds on joint reflection, anticipation and engagement on the ethical and societal issues related to scientific developments. Engaging in dialogue and exchange of viewpoints helps address the challenge that controversies and conflict over scientific developments are hardly ever a matter of ‘facts’. Rather they are often disagreement about what is good and right to do. Carefully designed dialogues and deliberations may help clarify the issues and interests at stake, and show possible ways forward.


Public engagement can lead to a mutual understanding and trust among the citizens.

The report “The landscape of Science, Ethics and Public engagement & their Potential for the Future” was commissioned by the Kavli Foundation, and written by the by the Danish Board of Technology Foundation. The report, provides a landscape overview of experiences with public engagement across scientific disciplines, focusing on the topic areas: Recombinant DNA, Nuclear Power, Biobanks, Nanotechnologies and Artificial Intelligence.

The report determines that publics have been engaged on ethical issues across scientific disciplines, and that they are willing and able to engage. We also saw that mapping aims and goals of such exercises is not straightforward, but that there exists a multitude of perspectives on the goals and outcome of the public engagement exercises. Our findings show examples of how public engagement can contribute to mutual understanding and trust-building with citizens; that it can empower citizens to participate in discussions, and thereby democratize expertise; that it can contribute to developing science and policy; and last, but not least, that the scientists who engage take valuable insights with them into their own work.

The report suggests that:

  • Public engagement can be a democratic tool to open scientific developments and decision-making to societal debate and democratic control.
  • However, for public engagement to become such a tool, existing structures of power, interest and inequalities that shape the context of scientific and technological development and public engagement activities need to be made explicit as topics of debate.
  • Such power structures can be understood at different levels of organization. From the micro-level of differences in education, background and societal status that would influence dialogue between a scientist and a citizen, to the macro-level power dynamics that shape dialogues on the direction of scientific developments at the global stage.


Lessons learned and questions for future development.

The report opens to the complex context of public engagement activities. It shows the manifold actors, motivations and meanings given to public engagement activities, and it provides examples of the impact of engagement exercises. Across the topical areas mapped for the report, several questions emerged. The central questions for the future include questions of ‘who’, when, how and why public engagement activities are best undertaken.

For future practice, it would be important to develop a more widely shared inventory of public engagement methods, mapped to possible goals and impacts. Collaboration between academics, public engagement practitioners, and other stakeholders could be an important step in developing such an inventory. Finally, we end with a larger question as to who should take responsibility for the future development of public engagement activities. At present, activities may be described as a patchwork of projects and programs, with varying degrees of policy or funding support and prioritization. The question is what type(s) of support, attention and organization are needed to move practices of engagement into the mainstream of science and technology policy and development?