must be prepared for the emergence of unforeseen outcomes and thus must have structures in place that will detect such outcomes and focus attention on them in a timely way. When unforeseen outcomes do emerge, policy makers must be prepared to communicate with the public using proven techniques. A developed strategy for public communication is also useful when anticipated ELSI concerns become public. Government actions in the United States ultimately depend, legally and practically, on the consent of the governed. Building public understanding of an agency’s actions, the reasons for those actions, and the precautions the agency has taken will normally be the best strategy, for democracy and for the agency.
In addition, members of the public (including, for example, technical experts, experts on risk assessment and communication, and those with ELSI expertise broadly defined) may have points of view that were not well represented in an agency’s internal deliberations about a given R&D project. Ongoing engagement throughout the course of a project may reveal the impending appearance of initially unanticipated ethical, legal, and societal issues, and thus provide early warning to program managers and enable a more rapid response if and when these new issues do appear. Finally, the mere fact of consultation and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders helps to defuse later claims that one perspective or another was ignored or never taken into account.
Finally, a relevant stakeholder group is the community of researchers themselves. An agency should not suddenly introduce substantive changes in its requirements for proposals without informing the research community about what those changes mean. What is the rationale for these changes? How, if at all, will research projects have to change? What, if anything, does “attending to ethical, legal, and societal issues” mean in the context of decisions about specific proposals?
For R&D projects that are classified, public engagement is obviously constrained to a certain extent. Nevertheless, even if such projects can be discussed only with the cleared subsets of the various stakeholder groups, the result will still be more robust and defensible than if the project had not been discussed at all.
2.e–Periodically reviewing ELSI-related processes in an agency
Well-meaning policy statements are sometimes translated into excessively bureaucratic requirements. To ensure that ESLI-related processes do not place undue burdens on researchers or on program managers in an agency, these processes should themselves be reviewed periodically to ensure that they are consistent with the intent of high-level policy statements regarding the agency’s handling of ethical, legal, and societal issues.