1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Cesagen · Research

Public Discourses around Stem Cell Research

Jenny Kitzinger

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Affiliated staff

Fiona Coyle, Choon Key Chekar

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This project was designed to examine public discourses and discourses about the public as they play out in the debate about embryonic stem cell research. The research examined different countries and was designed to explore how such constructions played out in different cultural/political contexts.


The project:

  • reviewed research into public attitudes toward stem cell research in the UK, New Zealand, South Korea and the USA
  • conducted a comparative analysis of the policy/political debates about the public’s role in the four countries
  • carried out a systematic analysis of newspaper coverage of ‘the public’ or ‘citizen’ in each country


  • Critical review of the research into public attitudes towards stem cell research
  • Comparative analysis of four countries involving secondary accounts about the public debate, policy documents, political debates, conducting interviews with scientists and policy makers
  • Systematic analysis of newspaper coverage in each of the four countries focussing on two key international breakthroughs (the South Korean breakthroughs in Feb 2004 and May 2005; the international scandal when the South Korean claim unravelled in 2005/06)


The review identified some commonalities such as:

  • ‘The public’ most often had a voice in the debate in all four countries through stakeholders such as scientists, patient groups and religious organisations – rather than as ‘ordinary person’.
  • Appeals to ‘The public’ served as a key rhetorical device to justify policy.
  • Claims about ‘public opinion’ were most commonly asserted by both journalists and by stakeholders with no evidence base at all./li>
  • Consulting the public (via consultation or surveys) has also sometimes become part of the battle, with different ‘polls’ being commissioned by media outlets or funded by different sides.
  • Public opinion may be framed as scientifically well informed and intelligent, or as emotional and irrational depending on the goal of those using ‘public opinion’ data

We also identified key differences between countries

  • Different ways of framing the public (e.g. as ‘voters’ or ‘tax payers’ v. ‘lay publics’)
  • Different mechanisms for assessing public opinion (e.g. variations in the use of polls and focus groups) and of representing the public (e.g. use of ‘vox pops’
  • Different framings of national characteristics, citizenship or religious imperatives.

Our research showed how discourses about ‘The public’ are ‘constructed’ rather than simply ‘found’ or ‘reflected’ and how key such discourses are to promoting particular approaches to innovation. The construction of the public both reflects, and helps to constitute different ideas about citizenship and science in diverse national contexts. Consideration of how publics are framed is crucial to a full understanding of the rhetoric and practices surrounding the scientific enterprise.


Coyle, F., Key Chekar, C. and Kitzinger, J. (2008) Comparative Analyses of ‘Public Discourse’ and ‘Discourses about The Public’ In Relation To Stem Cell Research: a summary report, Available here

Coyle, F. (2007) A cross-country comparison of how ‘public opinion’ is studied and understood in relation to stem cell research’ Summary Report of Public Opinion/Engagement Literature, Available here

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