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Gene editing: Placing citizens of the world at the centre of the discussion

28 May 2020

Tara Corcoran

Researchers from the University of Canberra, along with their industry partner Genepool Productions, have won more than $430,000 in Australian Research Council (ARC) funding to enact and film the world’s first ‘global citizens’ deliberation’ on genome editing.

Technology has developed to a point where humans can edit genes to redesign life and sculpt the evolution of living creatures. With this comes a multitude of ethical and legal questions and decisions – including how to apply this technology, who gets to dictate the boundaries, and who decides the sort of future we want?

To help answer these questions, the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra is convening the world’s first Global Citizens’ Assembly. It will connect citizens from all over the world and place the public at the centre of the conversation.

Professor John Dryzek, Dr Simon Niemeyer and Dr Nicole Curato are leading the ARC Linkage project, which aims to bring the science of genomic technologies to a wider audience.

“We must bring in everyday citizens, to help scientists, governments and regulators understand and act according to their aspirations and concerns regarding this technology, and at a global level,” said Dr Niemeyer.

“These are issues that cut right across vital public values. But because there is not a widespread familiarity among citizens with the issues and their implications specific to this technology, there is a need to create a forum where a representative sample can learn, deliberate and decide what the boundaries are, and what should be done to ensure that important, irreversible lines aren’t crossed.”

The grant includes an industry partner contribution from Genepool Productions, who will film the Global Citizens’ Assembly as the third of a three-part documentary series. The project team will analyse its impact on public understanding of fast-evolving science and technology.

“The resulting documentary will bring the science of genomic technologies to a wider audience, through the lens of their fellow citizens, combining the drama of their thoughts, judgments, hopes and fears with the science around the issue and expressed in their own (non-technical) language,” said Dr Niemeyer.

The project will also investigate the cross-cultural ability of citizens to discuss complex issues to provide a global public response to shared challenges. Dr Niemeyer explained the moral benefits of this type of global citizen deliberation.

“This process needs to be global to prevent what is sometimes called ‘ethics dumping’, where people wanting to develop or test technologies look for the least regulated place. And just as human rights are a matter of global concern, so should a technology capable of affecting what it means to be human.”

More information, including a video about the project, is available here.