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Social impacts of new biotechnologies researched

Research to look at social impacts of new biotechnologies

Canterbury University-based research looking at the social impacts of new health biotechnologies will receive funding of $3 million over five years from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Genetic testing, gene banking, biopharming, stem cell research, cloning and xenotransplantation are among the new biotechnologies that will be under consideration in the project, Constructive Conversations: Biotechnologies, Dialogue and Informed Decision-making.

The research is one of a number of projects developed by the newly established NZ Institute of Gene Ecology (NZIGE) based at University of Canterbury.

Project leader Rosemary Du Plessis, a sociologist at Canterbury, says the goal of the research is greater public participation in decision-making about new technologies. She says the researchers will explore alternative strategies to enhance public participation and produce new knowledge about the social, ethical, cultural and spiritual implications of emerging health biotechnologies.

”We will also examine the ethical frameworks people bring to discussion about new biotechnologies and the implications for policy of these frameworks.”

Scientists, iwi, members of community organisations, clinicians, policy makers, regulators, biotechnology industry representatives and lobbyists for particular stakeholder interests will be asked to participate. All components of the project will take account of appropriate processes for dialogue with Maori.

“Although regulatory bodies, such as the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) and the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, have had significant experience consulting Maori, there is a need for models of dialogue that can facilitate ongoing, proactive conversations with Maori on emerging biotechnologies.”

Awareness of traditional Maori processes for exchanging views on critical social issues will shape all components of the project and the research will include facilitation of Maori-specific focus groups. The Constructive Conversations project also recognises the need to identify and incorporate the diverse socio-cultural perspectives of both the scientific and non-scientific communities around emerging biotechnologies.

The research is based at University of Canterbury, but the multi-disciplinary team includes researchers at Otago and Auckland Universities and at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). Political scientists, experts on Maori health, politics and culture, philosophers and bioethicists, science education researchers, biologists, and sociologists will be involved.

Background on the team. Rosemary Du Plessis is the social science representative on the Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand and contributed to the RSNZ submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. Bevan Tipene-Matua (Department of Maori, University of Canterbury) heads the work on Maori responsiveness. He was Senior Policy Advisor (Maori) for the Environmental Risk Management Authority and has recently been appointed Director of Research and Development (Maori) at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. Others leading the project are Dr Anne Scott (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury), Dr Joanna Goven (Department of Political Science, University of Canterbury) and Dr Andrew Moore (Department of Philosophy, University of Otago).

Dr Scott has published internationally on the politics of biotechnology, community informatics and the sociology of health and illness. Dr Goven has analysed debates about genetic modification and extensively researched international and local models of public participation in science/technology decision-making. She recently presented some of the results of this work to the Bioethics Council. Dr Moore chairs the National Ethics Advisory Committee and is a member of the National Health Committee. His publications include work in political philosophy, practical ethics and public policy.

The Constructive Conversations team also includes Rosemary Hipkins, Dr Jane Gilbert and Robyn Baker at New Zealand Council for Educational Research, who recently completed a study of public attitudes to science and technology commissioned by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Dr Murray Parsons, an ethnobotanist and advisor to the Environmental Risk Management Authority, is a key member of team. Gareth Jones, Professor of Anatomy and Structural Biology at University of Otago and Founding Director of the Bioethics Research Centre, brings expertise in science and religion, neuroscience and bioethics to the research. University of Auckland researchers are Dr Fiona Cram, an expert on kaupapa Maori health research, and Associate Professor Jan Crosthwaite, a philosopher with expertise in bioethics.

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