Could ‘Science Courts’ Help Build Public Trust?

In 2022, Wellcome Connecting Science, a genomics program funded by the Wellcome Trust, organized A Citizens jury To question whether the UK government should allow scientists to edit the DNA of human embryos in order to treat serious genetic conditions. Forming a jury was an unconventional approach to involving the public in decision-making on a complex scientific topic that could influence public policy.

Genome editing It is one example of a scientific topic that has profound societal implications. Although this technology can treat inherited genetic conditions, it is also intertwined with questions about equity, accessibility, disability rights, and privacy. The scientists working to advance genome editing and the public who could benefit from it are isolated from each other, unaware of each other’s motivations and perspectives.

This distance between the American public and scholars is growing. Trust in scientists to act in the public interest fell from 87 to 73 percent between 2020 and 2023, according to Pew Research Center. Fewer people believe that science has a mostly positive impact on society: this share fell from 73% in 2019 to 57% in 2023. For the public to support and trust scientific research, they must be able to engage with it. Decisions should involve not only experts, but also the people whom these policies are intended to serve.

As scientists trained in neuroscience, genome editing, and public health, we are acutely aware of the tension between conducting research within the confines of the laboratory and an increasingly alienated public that is called upon to trust our work. While politicization and the government’s lack of preparedness for Covid-19 This mistrust is exacerbatedThis is not the first time trust has been violated. the Tuskegee study And condition Henrietta Lacks These are just two examples from the twentieth century that have caused harm and caused public mistrust of scientists. We believe that the deliberative approach to democracy, like citizens’ juries and “Science courts“, has the potential to address this problem.

Scholarly courts were originally proposed during the 1960s, a time not unlike our own. The sixties and seventies too saw a decline The public’s faith in science is caused by a combination of factors: disillusionment with World War II, the nuclear arms race, the Vietnam War, and social revolutions such as the environmental movement. Scientists are no longer merely disinterested seekers of truth, but have become the potential cause of many of humanity’s artificial ills. In this climate, Arthur Kantrowitz—physicist, educator, and science policy advocate— Proposal His idea for science courts was in 1967. Borrowing from the American court system, Kantrowitz envisioned a court that would address policy questions involving a basic scientific issue such as food additives or nuclear energy from a purely scientific perspective. Expert advocates may publicly debate the merits or demerits of science before a judge who will issue an informed decision based on the facts.

Trust in scientists to act in the public interest fell from 87 to 73 percent between 2020 and 2023, according to the Pew Research Center.

The idea became popular among science advocates and received positive media coverage, but the proposed Federal Science Court was never implemented to make highly influential decisions. However, the dream of a science court remained.

Nearly 50 years later, the idea was revived in the form of a college classroom. Lod Tadmor, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, began teaching an honors course to undergraduates called Science court In 2018. The Palmyra version involves student researchers presenting a scientific case from opposing sides to a jury of local volunteers. Topics included federal investment in nuclear energy, student access to technology, and mandatory civil service for American citizens. Students research the topic extensively so that by the end of the semester-long mock trial they are able to present the facts from an informed and unbiased point of view. One juror in a 2019 nuclear power trial told us that he was receptive to and trusted the information provided because he saw the students as neutral and objective experts. The jury was empowered to make an informed and considered decision based on which side presented the better argument.

The Palmyra Scientific Court has been a success at the university level, but as an academic practice, there are no consequences on the ground. What would a realistic version of a science court look like? How can the Science Court be used more widely as a participatory decision-making method to better communicate science to the public and, hopefully, generate more trust in the way science policy is formulated?

The United States can look to the way the United Kingdom has adopted broadly participatory decision-making. There, citizen juries are a very popular form of getting feedback from communities, and some evidence suggests that these forms of participation have been beneficial to public support for science and technology. The jury consists of people who have an interest in the topic under discussion and hear from relevant experts.

At the 2022 Wellcome Connecting Science jury on human embryo editing, the jury spent four days listening to expert presentations, discussion and deliberation, and produced a detailed and meticulous report on the terms and conditions they believed were necessary to eventually allow genome editing in embryos. . The report reflects the views of people directly affected by genetic conditions because they were part of the jury. Their recommendations were intended to inform policymakers, researchers and the public at large. This is the potential and promise of such democratic approaches to policy making.

Speaking as scientists, we think the only way to know if science courts will work here in the United States is to try them. Experiment with real people who are thinking about and affected by real issues. Giving scientists the opportunity to engage with the public effectively. Allowing the public to learn the scientific details behind policy and participate in deliberations that ultimately affect them with the goal of eliminating boundaries between scientist and citizen.

Areek Shams, Ph.D., is a biotechnology consultant and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the US Department of State’s Office of Agricultural Policy. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Leana King, Ph.D. candidate in the Cognitive Neuroanatomy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and a graduate fellow at the Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public.

Joy Liu, MD, is a physician and public health specialist who has previously written for ABC News, Good Morning America, and Doximity.

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