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The Social Dynamics of Public Engagement in Stem Cell Research

Fiona Harris   Stephen Bates   Nicola Marks

Principal investigator(s):   Sarah Parry

Affiliated staff:   Sarah Cunningham-Burley   Dr W. Faulkner   Prof A. Smith

February 1 2005 – February 19 2008

Background

This three year study aims to critically explore the scope for public engagement in stem cell research (SCR) and has two parallel aims. Firstly, to explore the social, cultural and ethical issues generated by stem cell research. Secondly to `test' a range of public engagement techniques for example, citizens' panels, focus groups, public meetings, education packs for schools, along with developing experimental approaches to this. Positive efforts will be made to engage the full spectrum of Scottish society, including hard-to-reach groups as well as scientists working in the field of stem cell research, potential users of therapies and other `public' groups. It is intended that this project will critically engage with the issues relating to stem cell research and form an empirically-based analysis of public engagement practices.

Aims and objectives

  • To examine how diverse groups of publics and scientists view a range of issues surrounding developments in SCR
  • To 'situate' people's views in terms of their social identities and locations, and salient wider themes in contemporary culture
  • To initiate a range of methods for promoting and researching public engagement in SCR, using the same social groups
  • To analyse these efforts for insights into the social processes involved, and to explore practical ways of extending public participation in decision making about SCR.

Research methods

The aims of the research project are to investigate views and concerns about Stem Cell Research, and to explore the scope for increasing public engagement in the developing field.

A literature review of the relevant literature will include: techniques of public engagement; critical approaches to the public understanding of science; the social implications of stem cell research and the new genetics. Two rounds of focus groups will be conducted with a range of stakeholder and non-stakeholder publics. These will include scientists, members of patient groups and other diverse publics ranging in age, social and geographic location. From these groups, members will be selected and invited to participate in further public engagement activities. These will be identified with assistance from participants. A range of different public engagement events and activities will be organised and analysed and also an educational intervention for teenage school pupils.

Research questions

The aims of this research project are:

  • To investigate views and concerns about Stem Cell Research, and
  • To explore the scope for increasing public engagement in the developing field.

As the project is still in the early stages, the following is a list of anticipated areas of contribution:

  • Contributions to sociology - the sociology of scientific knowledge; medical sociology.
  • Sociology & social anthropology - conceptualising the body, emotion and personhood; constructions of the nature/culture boundary.
  • Social anthropology - belief, the body and relatedness; anthropology of science; medical anthropology.
  • Science & technology studies - theoretical debates around knowledge & expertise; critical approaches to the public understanding of science; development of innovative methods of public engagement in science.
  • Public health - changing notions of health and illness; experiences of disability and health.

Key findings

  • A recruitment matrix has been developed and a sample identified for the first round of focus groups.
  • Collaboration with the Institute for Stem Cell Research to devise project information materials and develop the schools-based arm of the project with a newly recruited Science Communications Officer at ISCR.
  • Significant progress with a wide-ranging literature review.

Publications

We anticipate submitting policy briefings and papers to a range of journals, which might include the following:

Science, Technology & Human Values,

Social Studies of Science,

Public Understanding of Science,

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,

British Journal of Sociology,

Social Science & Medicine.

Further information

For further information contact Sarah Parry, sarah.parry@ed.ac.uk