Issues surrounding genetic engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology are contentious, especially when applied to food, the environment, and industrial applications for which direct human consent and medical benefits are not present. How researchers, developers, and policy-makers communicate about and reflect upon their work is of utmost importance to these fields. Increased understanding about how participants within and across various professional contexts conceive of and frame the ethical dimensions of their work can assist with future cross-sector dialogue, and potentially conflict resolution. In this paper we present the results to date of a two year NSF-funded project which employs a novel approach for comparative analyses of meanings of responsible innovation (RI) and ethics in genetic engineering, biotechnology and synthetic biology, while cultivating socially-responsible cultures of R&D among graduate students, faculty, and outside practitioners.
The project innovates in four key respects: 1) it focuses on bioengineering, specifically in areas in which engineering ethics programs have not routinely been applied--genetic engineering, biotechnology and synthetic biology; 2) it evaluates an example pedagogy of engaged scholarship, student facilitation of focus groups, for learning and cultivating ethical cultures; 3) it uses framings of RI as key parts of the dialogue about ethical cultures in biotechnology; and 4) it compares meanings of RI across five sectors—government, academe, industry, trade organizations, and non-profit organizations with advocacy roles. The project has two major components: 1) two four-day interdisciplinary workshops for graduate students (some from a program to maximize student diversity and some from an NSF-IGERT on Genetic Pest Management) in which the students consider meanings of RI, examine micro- and macro-ethical issues associated with biotechnology, and learn about focus groups as a research method and how to facilitate them; and 2) fifteen focus groups (three from each biotechnology sector) moderated by the students who were enrolled in the workshop.
In the paper we report on the first year of the project (one student workshop and one focus group for each sector) including the workshop design and focus group protocol, as well as preliminary analysis of project results. Data collected include pre- and post-surveys from the workshop and stakeholder focus groups designed to test participants’ attitudes towards RI and measure core values from cultural theory in relation to policy values regarding RI, as well as qualitative analysis of the focus group transcripts. Workshop outcomes are based on a student workshop evaluation and analysis of student learning in the workshop, including pre- and post-tests on study-specific questions and moral reasoning using the DIT-2 instrument.
Preliminary results indicate that the workshop was successful in achieving goals of increasing student learning about ethics and RI, and confidence in moderating focus groups and in conversations with stakeholders. Some interesting differences between stakeholder groups in policy values related to RI are emerging in the focus groups. Industry, and to a lesser extent academic and trade groups, seem less in favor of elements of RI after the focus groups. There are also some observable differences in core values among stakeholder groups.
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