What’s next for public engagement in advanced engineering biology?

New research from DR LUCY CARTER and colleagues interrogates whether science organisations actually utilise the results of public engagement research to its intended effect.

Engaging with the public around potential applications of engineering biology is an important step in the development and deployment of synthetic biology technologies.

The global engineering biology community has worked to address knowledge gaps around which public engagement methods are most appropriate in different contexts. The next hurdle is determining how best to integrate this knowledge into the development and use of technologies.

New social science research led by Dr Lucy Carter from CSIRO’s Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform (AEB FSP), and published in OMICS The Journal of Integrative Biology published last month seeks to ‘close the loop’ for research impact by doing just that.

The findings could help engineering biology researchers work towards impact by ensuring public values are reflected in the planning and implementation of engineering biology innovations.

A female scientist wearing safety goggles and a blue labcoat is peering into a machine that has a purple reflective glow.

New research from the AEB FSP’s Interdisciplinary Decision Making theme interrogates whether science organisations actually utilise the results of public engagement research to its intended effect.

The gap between good intentions and good governance

The global advanced engineering biology (AEB) community has made a collective commitment to responsible science and innovation development.

CSIRO scientist and lead author Dr Lucy Carter points out that public-focussed research that meaningfully engages diverse publics and stakeholders about their views and expectations of AEB applications is underway in many countries, including Australia.

Yet evidence of diverse views influencing future science directions is difficult to find.

“Scientists generally hold good intentions to utilise the results of public engagement research to good effect, but there are some essential structures and processes that need to be in place before this actually happens,” Dr Carter says.

The so-called ‘Engagement Gap’ can be the consequence of a lack of capacity to translate research findings into useable information in a timely way. It can also stem from a lack of specially designed organisational mechanisms that integrate the information generated from engagement research into science decision-making and planning.

Enabling institutional change

A female researcher wearing a blue top smiles at the camera. She has brown hair and a tanned complexion.

Dr Lucy Carter, who led this research, co-leads the AEB FSP’s Interdisciplinary decision-making research theme.

The authors found that much of today’s engineering biology scholarship tackling the social and governance aspects of innovation is aligned around the issue. That is, the value and need for meaningful engagement in the development and deployment of engineering biology innovations.

Moreover, many influential science organisations have fully committed to hearing diverse voices when it relates to science innovation.

However, the next big step will be to integrate the research results with diverse publics into science decision-making.

“If we are opening science up to co-design by different groups and sectors, then we need to find an entry point to integrate the information we find. We also need to find a process to determine how best we can use or respond to the information we find.”

And if we don’t?

“Without this accountability, publics’ trust in the value of participation in science will likely erode,” Dr Carter says.

There are several enablers that can help drive organisations to better integrate public engagement research, for example:

  • Research that sits on the interdisciplinary-transdisciplinary spectrum can assist in orienting research towards research impact,
  • Dedicated research translation and implementation panels in science organisations, and
  • Fully embedded monitoring, evaluation and learning system in programs with innovation goals.

According to Dr Carter, when properly integrated, these enablers can combine to assist science to deliver on its commitment to responsible science and practice.

Learn more about our Interdisciplinary Decision-Making research theme.