The dilemma of raising awareness “responsibly”

  • Nerlich B
  • McLeod C
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Science is often the best and sometimes the only means to address health, environmental, economic and other challenges. Debate with the public about research, its results and possible applications ensures a rational, informed process to find sustainable solutions. However, there is a conundrum at the heart of science communication, outreach activities, public or upstream engagement and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI): When is it best to engage with the public about a controversial or emerging field of science; before or after people have become aware of the issue and begun talking about it? The timing has consequences: RRI, for example, relies on early public engagement and debate in order to guide research and applications and to ensure research and innovation align with public needs and values. However, early communication about controversial research raises the risk of creating unfounded hopes and fears. Here, we explore the contours of this conundrum by focusing on synthetic biology. Despite our focus, the issues actually affect all types of science communication and RRI activities. In some fields, such as climate change, the issues have been discussed more openly than in others. We aim to learn from these discussions when trying to answer the question: When is it the right time to responsibly raise awareness about synthetic biology? Social scientists have analysed science communication and public engagement for many years, focusing in particular on constructions of “the public”. They have shown that publics are plural and diverse and often able to offer “lay expertise” on specific issues. This means that a simple communication model that stresses promoting public understanding, acceptance and trust in science is problematic. More recently, social scientists have begun to foster a new approach—called RRI—that encourages public engagement from the beginning of the research process, engagement that is regarded as crucial for making …




Nerlich, B., & McLeod, C. (2016). The dilemma of raising awareness “responsibly.” EMBO Reports, 17(4), 481–485.

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