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What have we learned after 40 years of debate on life sciences and technologies ? What can we propose for the future ?

The objective of this colloquium is to explore the role of public debate in life sciences and techniques. The event will be an opportunity to review and assess 40 years of debate so as to identify new paths forward and find ways to durably improve the relationship between science and society.

In 1975, not only researchers but journalists, jurists and government officials as well were invited to the Asilomar Conference, held under the impetus of Paul Berg, to debate societal issues raised by recombinant DNA technologies. The scientists at the event strongly defended the need to continue research in the field (while respecting strict rules) and to not delegate the regulation of scientific endeavors to other bodies. Through this open debate, a consensus was achieved. At the time, the public perceived the initiative as a clear display of a strong sense of collective responsibility and resultantly felt greater confidence in the enterprise of science.

Thirty years later, in 2004, Paul Berg expressed his doubt that a similar tactic would be effective for treating today’s difficult science-society questions, for which a new form of democratic debate needs to be invented to scrutinize modern scientific and technical choices.

Such a debate would educe a number of questions : What exactly must be discussed ? When should debates be organized ? Who should participate ? How should the debate articulate with resulting decisions ? These questions and more have been intensely explored since the Asilomar conference, not only in the setting of doctrine by philosophers, political scientists and sociologists, but also as a part of experimentations deployed by public authorities in different countries : the creation of the American Office of Technology Assessment in the 1970s, the deployment of ethics committees and participative democracy in Europe in the 1980s, the generalization of principles of public information and debate, etc. These experiences exploring the possibility of “technical democracy” were rich, diversified and notable for the quality of exchanges and a form of public reasoning discernable within them.

With hindsight however, the promise of reciprocal enrichment of science and democracy that these experiences represented does not appear to have been kept. Or at least these experiences convinced neither the researchers, who considered dangerous the negotiation of their autonomy, nor their critics, who suspected a new method to manipulate opinions and fabricate acceptance of new technologies. The situation appears particularly troublesome in France, where “debating the debate” is so intense that it overshadows the scientific and technical questions that are supposed to be under discussion.
What can we learn from 40 years of debate in life sciences and how can we construct tomorrow’s dialog between science and society ?