Engagement and regulation of emerging technologies

Earlier today I spoke at a symposium{.vt-p} organised by Biocentre{.vt-p} on the regulation of emerging technologies. In this post I am going to summarise my own talk (slides below), and will report on the other speakers’ presentations later.

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My talk focussed on the relationship between public engagement with research  and the development of effective regulation for emerging technologies. This is an essential and central linkage because most, if not all ’emerging technologies’, emerge from research. The only way we can ensure that public engagement with emerging technologies happens sufficiently early in their development is by bringing that engagement right ‘upstream’ into research itself. This concept has been around for a while{.vt-p}, and there is a growing library of engagement reports that have sought views on emerging technologies and related research.

There are a couple of key conclusions run through these reports. First. the need for appropriate regulation is a common theme in discussions of new technologies. In general people see the benefits of new technological developments, and they see regulation as a way of managing the potential downsides. I don’t think you can argue with this point given the history of technological innovation where there are plenty of examples where it would have been much better if the negative consequences had been managed in advance. But more than this there is valuable information contained in these dialogues for framing the development of regulation. For example, the extent to which technological innovations are, or could be made reversible is a potential guiding principle. And the need for truly international regulatory frameworks is also clearly appreciated.

While there is undoubtedly plenty of evidence that dialogue about research has the potential to be helpful in designing appropriate regulation there is less evidence that it actually does so. The challenge is to feed the thinking that emerges from public engagement into the processes that develop regulation. Of course regulators need to balance risk and benefit, and take care not to stifle the development of new technologies. But I believe it would help if they were more open to and involved with public engagement with research.