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"Citizen's Conference" on Stem Cell Research

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  • "Citizen's Conference" on Stem Cell Research

    December 17, 2003 Previous | Next
    Listening to 'normal people'German project asks real folks what they think about stem cell research | By Ned Stafford

    Some Excerpts:

    A "citizens' conference" on stem cell research was launched over the weekend in Germany and will for the first time allow the voices of "normal people," to be heard on the highly controversial issue, according to Christof Tannert, head of a project studying ethical questions in biomedicine.

    Tannert, head of Bioethics and Science Communication at the Max Delbrueck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch, told The Scientist that in the past, the German Parliament depended almost entirely on the opinions of experts when crafting new stem cell research laws.

    It is an attempt to make "democracy function better," said Tannert, a biochemist, theologian, and politician who served in the Berlin state Parliament and the European Parliament.

    He described the Citizens' Conference as the highlight of the 3-year project he is leading, called "Discourse on Ethical Questions of Biomedicine," financed with a grant of around €1 million from the German Ministry of Education and Research. Research Center Juelich is also cooperating on the project, which also includes the Delphi Study, a detailed survey asking stem cell scientists what progress and medical benefits they expect from their research in the next decade.

    Tannert and his project team earlier this year sent out letters to 14,000 people selected at random in Berlin and the nearby cities of Bernau and Nauen, asking whether they would be interested in participating in the Citizens' Conference. Of the 500 positive responses, his team selected 20 adults-10 men and 10 women-to participate.

    The first of three scheduled conference weekends began Friday (December 12), during which two people decided to drop out, Tannert said. The remaining 18 citizens spent the 3-day weekend cloistered in Berlin to learn more about stem cell research and to discuss the issues in small and large groups, which were led by outside moderators from a German university.

    The 18 citizens will meet again for 3 days of private, internal discussions at the end of January before a closing conference from March 12-14.

    The Delphi Study is being led by Peter M. Wiedemann, head of the Humans, Environment, Technology Program Group at the Research Centre Juelich. He told The Scientist that about 100 people in Germany were identified as intimately involved in stem cell research. Of those, 64 agreed during the summer to participate in the survey and 49 returned the questionnaires, which take from 2.5 to 4 hours to complete.

    Preliminary results were compiled, summarized, and sent to the 49 respondents in order to let them know how their colleagues answered, Wiedemann said. The 49 stem cell experts were then asked to fill out the questionnaire a second time, giving them a chance to revise their answers after reading the summary of the first questionnaire.

    For example, Wiedemann said, if someone said in the first survey round that he expects a medical benefit in 2 years, but everyone else says 10 to 15 years, he may decide to change his answer.