Our Research Agenda
The research component of the Australian citizens jury on genome editing aims to examine the prospects for an informed democratic response to the challenge posed by genome editing technologies in Australia, using methods developed in the field of deliberative democracy.
The outcomes of this research seek to inform policy development and law reform in Australia. They will also contribute to broader discussions about the global governance of genome editing as part of a wider constellation of separate but inter-related projects in a consortium developing a global citizens’ assembly into which this research will feed.
This project harnesses the skills of a unique and globally connected cross-disciplinary team. It brings world-leading researchers in the fields of deliberative democracy and governance of genomics together with an Emmy award-winning science documentary team who will amplify the context, reach and impact of the research.
The combined effort will generate broad public awareness and informed discussion around the issue of genome editing, ahead of any potential misinformation or polarization, and will inform clear mechanisms for governing the deployment of the technology informed by public values, both Australian and global. To learn more please visit Our Impact Agenda.
Phase 1: Scoping Exercise
The research project commenced in July 2020 led by Professor Dianne Nicol. The first phase involved a scoping exercise to identify key issues and developments in genome editing.
Qualitative methodology was adopted for the scoping exercise, involving interviews with national and global experts in the field of genome editing, including bench scientists, clinicians, embryologists, ethicists, social scientists, law academics and policy makers. Experts were either recruited from existing networks or based on their acknowledged prominence in national and international discourses on genome editing.
A total of 34 experts were interviewed. The conversations were open ended, organised around the following themes:
background and interest in genome editing
where the field is currently placed and where it is heading
some of the key ethical and social issues arising in the context of genome editing
adequacy of legal and policy responses
key themes that could be considered at the citizens’ jury
any other relevant considerations
Although this project focuses primarily on genome editing in humans, the views of experts on the application of gene editing in agriculture and pest eradication were also canvassed to facilitate comparison across applications.
The expert interviews have been crucial in formulating the set of questions to be put to lay participants in the next (mapping) phase of the project. The themes from the interviews are currently being analysed in more detail for publication.
The experts uniformly expressed support for the citizens jury approach to public engagement that is being adopted in this project.
Phase 2: Issue Mapping and Benchmarking
The identification of the issues, as defined by consultation with experts in Phase 1 has produced over a thousand quotes, drawn from the interview transcripts. These have been categorised and sampled into smaller set of survey items that will be used to map the existing positions on the issue among the wider community. The mapping study, uses a combined interview and survey technique (based on Q methodology) to establish the kinds of in situ perspectives within the community on genome editing in humans.
The mapping study involves an intensive research approach, involving a relatively small sample of participants (around 30) across a wide diversity of views. Each participant is interviewed while performing the survey that sorts through approximately 40 statements drawn from the scoping study, and ranking of a small number of policy options concerning regulation of genome editing. The results provides a very detailed picture of their underlying subjective dispositions (values and beliefs) towards genome editing this is used to identify regularities or patterns in reasoning that can be used to compile a “map” of the types of perspectives that currently exist.
Phase 3: Examining the dynamics of deliberation
To understand the public mind in living, dynamic terms, and how public values inform how to best proceed, we are convening a citizens’ jury to examine how Australians exchange reasons and considerations under conditions of democratic deliberation. This is the third phase of our research project.
Phase 3 begins in May 2021 in the lead up and aftermath of the citizens’ jury. The aim is to examine how participants experience the process of democratic deliberation. We investigate how and why participants’ views crystallise and possibly change as they become better informed by expert evidence and gain insight about the views of their fellow citizens. This will be accomplished by combining three approaches of social scientific research.
Dynamic mapping study. The methods using for mapping study in phase 2 will be used to survey participants in the citizens jury before and after deliberation to understand the how positions are impacted by deliberation. The analysis will investigate the kinds of changes that have occurred — whether there are movements across the position map, and/or whether the map itself has changed, representing a reconfigured public view of the issue. It will also focus on what kinds of matters explain the changes that have occurred and the extent to which they can be explained by knowledge gains, changes to values, or the way in which these beliefs and values translate into positions about preferred outcomes regarding the future of genome editing — which is partly informed by the analysis of deliberative reasoning.
Measuring the quality of deliberative reasoning. The depth and sophistication of reasoning is also captured at the group-level using Prof Simon Niemeyer’s deliberative reasoning index (DRI). The analysis provides information about how well the issues have been “worked through” by the deliberating group and represent a common understanding of what is at stake — without necessarily involving complete agreement, where differences in opinion may persist for good reasons that all participants understand.
The resulting positions from deliberation are also compared to the baseline mapping and benchmarking data obtained from the population survey in Phase 2. The analysis will infer how overall public opinion might change if it were possible to achieve the same level of engagement and quality in wider public debate.
Tracking the arguments in deliberation. Combining methods of direct observation and content analysis, A/Prof Nicole Curato will examine the ‘deliberativeness’ of the citizens jury by tracking participants’ arguments, speech styles, and non-verbal cues. Observations and text will be categorised using a modified version of the Codebook for Measuring the Quality of Deliberation.
Process evaluation. Participants’ experience of deliberation will be tracked using standard tools of process evaluation. Aside from gaining insight about participants’ subjective views about the deliberative experience, results of the evaluation will inform the research team about how the organisation of other national citizens juries and the Global Citizens’ Assembly on Genome Editing can be improved.
Phase 4: Examining the Implications
The deliberative process in phase 3 will produce important insights into how the public view forms under conditions of high information and deliberative quality. However, it is important to understand how these findings translate into possibilities for improving public debate more widely, and the implications for policy making. This phase examines the “public space” in which debate about genome editing is conducted and the resulting “policy space” for communicating with the public and decision making. The public space analysis will involve a population survey to test the deliberative impact of the AusCJ on the wider public
Benchmarking the Wider Public
The results of this mapping study will be updated from the AusCJ and used to develop a population survey focussing on the key issues that explain different perspectives. A small set of survey items — up to 20 — will be sampled from the mapping study as part of the process. These survey items will then be used in a national opinion survey of 1000 Australian residents regarding attitudes to human genome editing.
The survey results will inform a benchmarking study, examining how widely the different views identified in the mapping study and represented in the AusCJ deliberative process are shared in the wider community. From this analysis, an assessment of how the public discussion may unfold will be developed in light of the findings from the analysis in Phase 3.
This research provides a dynamic assessment of public opinion. Opinion surveys tell us little about the public view as it might evolve, especially where there is little actual current public discussion, and are likely to pick up non-attitudes, or unreflective responses that are overly sensitive to cues in the questions asked. Nor do surveys provide a context for reasoning through ethical trade-offs and dilemmas. The benchmarking and dynamic analysis will fill these gaps and provide a richer account of the public view for decision makers.
Phase 5: Policy Analysis and Dissemination
Scaling Deliberation to the Wider Public
This phase of the project overlaps with the benchmarking analysis and population survey. It will assess the extent to which knowledge about the AusCJ and its findings have influenced the public discussion and public opinion. It will involve specific questions in the population survey asking whether individuals are familiar with the process and/or are likely to trust the findings of their fellow citizens’ who have participated in the deliberative process.
Analysis of Policy Implications
Analysis of the implications of the AusCJ will be conducted as part of extension and review activities conducted as part of the research. This includes a meeting of experts on public policy and genome editing, as well as expertise in legal and ethical implications who will be tasked with synthesising the results of the study so far into a report for policy makers.
The report will then be finalised and disseminated to policy makers, as well as being made available to the wider public.