Expert knowledge, the public and political decision-making. Ethics councils and citizen participation as a mean of policy advice in Germany and Austria

Ethics councils and citizen participation as a means of policy advice in Germany and Austria

The progress of the Life Sciences raises complex ethical issues. Consequently, there is a need for more expertise in politics. In the last few years, national ethics councils have been established throughout all Western democracies. These expert panels are often accompanied by public scepticism. Are we facing expertocracy, in such a sensitive field as ethics? The project reveals that ethics councils do not replace the political process. Rather, ethical expertise opens up new ways of legitimising political decisions.

Expert panels deliver split opinions

Especially in bioethical issues such as stem cell research or genetic diagnosis, policy makers and society like to mobilize expertise provided by newly institutionalised ethics councils. However, often these interdisciplinary expert panels document in their votes the insurmountable dissent on a subject, instead of presenting a clear recommendation.

The project analysed how ethics expertise is produced in such ethics councils, in other words, how Interdisciplinarity works in practice; in addition, it analysed which political function ethics councils really have.

Major outcomes are:

Commissions tend to argue internally about whose knowledge is relevant and which arguments are considered legitimate. During the process a hierarchy between the particular exponents of different disciplines occurs. While lawyers maintain a strong position, ethicists are surprisingly of marginal significance.

Ethics councils do not make political decisions. Instead, the experts’ dissent reveals that the controversial issues have to be reconciled politically – politics becomes visible as a relevant actor.

09/2005 - 02/2007