To sustain public debate and to strengthen participation by citizens, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports discursive projects in the field of ethical, legal and social aspects of modern life sciences. This focal area includes genetic research. The challenges posed by life sciences and addressed in this research area exceeded by far medical and technological questions.
The research project “Discourse Forum for Young Citizens on the Internet: Genetic Research interactive” [German Acronym “Genitiv”] aimed at introducing young citizens to participate in public debate by example of genetic research and technology. Within the framework of the project, a Weblog was designed and set up on the Internet at www.wie-weit-wollen-wir-gen.de. The URL, when translated into English, stands for “How far do we want to go.
The Internet platform for young citizens was designed as an “open” weblog. By contrast to usual weblogs, an open weblog enables both weblog editors and visitors to post statements and comments.
Young citizens were asked to give their opinions on various aspects of human genetic engineering. Users were free either to post their own statements or to comment on statements expressed by other visitors. Furthermore, each statement and each comment could be evaluated by the public. Patterns of consensus or disagreement were identified in a pros-and-cons style (“I agree” or “I disagree”) for each statement. Background information was made available to the target group and introduced the weblog’s users to the issues of debate. “Genetic screening”, “DNA-databanks” and “Threat of genetic discrimination” were among the discourse forum’s thematic focal points.
Moderating the discourse was to ensure that the discussion was properly held. The moderators did not contribute to nor intervene in the discussion process itself at any point in time. The moderators hardly had to remove critical text passages. Users did not have to register. This is just an example that barriers to participation were avoided. The participants in the debate were required to confirm each of their statements to prevent the abuse of the discussion method (for instance, sending spam mails). Privacy was also taken very seriously by not displaying email addresses in the frontend.
The research project was evaluated comprehensively and comprised content analyses, expert interviews and the use of focus groups. The evaluation concludes that opinions of young citizens on ethical and political topics can be addressed and discussed on the Internet. To foster public debate, controversial issues should be carried into online discussions, too. The selection of discussion topics and the discussion style (preventing abusive language) should take into account the interests and concerns of young people.
The results show that Internet discussion platforms contribute to include young citizens in societal debates and dialogues. The research project was carried out conjointly by IZT – Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment, pol-di.net e.V. / politik-digital.de, the Federation of German Scientists (Berlin) and Dialogik (Stuttgart).
Discussion forum online (in German only): www.wie-weit-wollen-wir-gen.de