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The Social Dynamics of Public Engagement in Stem Cell Research

Bates, S

January 2007

Stem Cell Research (SCR) is an innovative and emergent field of scientific research with potentially significant medical application in the longer term. A programme of sociological research in the area provides a unique opportunity to study the social issues and context of SCR as they are unfolding in public discussions. Because SCR is an ongoing and open-ended area of scientific research that raises controversial political questions but also has a range of potential applications and technological trajectories, there is a significant need for ongoing engagement between scientists, social scientists and other citizens - a need well recognised by those working in the area.

Views about Stem Cell Research

This project aims to investigate the views and concerns of diverse social groups about Stem Cell Research and to explore the scope for increasing public engagement in the developing field. Our research so far has identified a number of issues that scientists and other groups alike are concerned about with regard to stem cell research.

  • In relation to sources from which stem cells are created we did not find strong opposition to SCR or the use of a range of tissues in research, including human eggs. Some participants did express concern, for example about the creation of embryos for research purposes, and the use of adult stem cells was regarded as less problematic.
  • In terms of drawing lines, groups often tried to make a distinction between medical and cosmetic applications, using culturally available metaphors from science fiction to make the point, such as 'designer babies' or 'mad scientists' to capture their unease with non-medical applications.
  • Quality rather than quantity of life seemed important when discussing SCR and interventions regarding ageing.
  • Almost all of the focus groups discussed issues of commercialisation and concern about the influence of market forces.
  • Scientists and clinicians expressed concern about the pressure to deliver new treatments.
  • There were clear links between trust and regulation or knowledge about regulation; there was universal trust in neither science nor the regulatory system.
  • There were interesting discussions about how to handle scientific uncertainty with many non-scientists welcoming more information and honesty and some scientists worrying about misunderstandings that might ensue.