By Dr. Lea Pare Toe, Target Malaria, Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS)
Stakeholder engagement is an essential component of gene drive research. Robust engagement is important not only because it is crucial for building and sustaining public confidence, but also because it can help define priorities and inform research design and pathways.
Through engagement activities, relevant stakeholders can actively shape the potential outcome of the research being carried out by sharing their perspectives, knowledge and concerns. Engagement activities also help ensure transparency, generate mutual trust and enable informed decision-making.
When considering engagement around an emerging technology, such as gene drive, one of the first questions we need to ask is who should be engaged. In NASEM’s Gene Drives on the Horizon report, engagement is represented via a concentric circle model with community members occupying the centre. These are people who have a geographic connection to the area where the research takes place. At Target Malaria, we see communities as partners in co-developing our research. Their participation not only empowers them but also adds value to our work and the technology we are working to develop. Researchers can learn a lot from local communities who, in return, have a right to understand what the research is all about.
After communities we must consider general stakeholders. These are people who may not have a geographic connection to the area where the research is taking place but who have an interest or expertise in the field that could help shape the research. Finally, we must also consider the general public or audiences who aren’t stakeholder or community members but may have a right to have a say in how emerging technologies, such as gene drive, are governed.
Since gene drive research is complex and multi-layered, it is important to involve local communities in its early stages. Engaging communities from the outset gives them the time to consider and understand the research taking place, and ultimately enables them to make informed decisions. Target Malaria engages a number of different stakeholders from local communities to national, regional and global stakeholders, as part of our commitment to transparency.
Robust stakeholder engagement ensures that research activities and any resulting technologies respond to stakeholders’ expectations and more effectively meet the needs and preferences of eventual beneficiaries. Ultimately stakeholder engagement can be thought about as a chance to learn from each other and understand the knowledge, expectations and preferences that may differ between researchers, affected communities and relevant stakeholders. Engagement is a two-way dialogue and reinforces co-development so that the final outcome of the research is both welcome and useful.