The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Public Engagement Past and Present: From Gopher to Website

February 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) by President Clinton in 1994. To make its work publicly accessible ACHRE created a “gopher,” what we now call a website, the first of its kind for a bioethics commission.

Tasked with reviewing the ethical and scientific standards of U.S. government-sponsored human experiments involving intentional exposure to radiation, ACHRE believed that the subject-matter of its review and the human stories that constituted it imposed a special responsibility to “disseminate as broadly as possible the results of its investigations, the implications of that history for our own time, and its best judgment concerning the rights and responsibilities of those involved.”

ACHRE’s gopher included historical information about the human radiation experiments, fact sheets about radiation, records of other government documents concerning the experiments, meeting transcripts, and the Committee’s Final Report.  Subsequent bioethics commissions followed ACHRE’s lead by using the internet to make their processes and deliberations easily accessible to the public. The website for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) continues in this tradition and contains similar types of information that ACHRE thought it so important to make available, including transcripts, reports, and details about Bioethics Commission members and staff.  But information technology has come a long way since ACHRE’s gopher, and the Bioethics Commission’s website also embraces new mechanisms for keeping the public up-to-date on its activities, such as regular blog posts, Twitter updates, videos featuring interviews with Commission members, and links to educational resources.  These features bring the Bioethics Commission to life and provide new opportunities for public engagement.

Jonathan Moreno, Senior Advisor to the Bioethics Commission and former staff member at ACHRE, had first-hand experience of the development of ACHRE’s gopher: “My first email address was in 1994. ACHRE wanted very much to take advantage of the Internet text platforms of the day (“graphical” interfaces made possible by the Web were still somewhat exotic), because the issues were of great public concern and there were relevant cases scattered throughout the country. It’s very satisfying to see the improvements in public access to commission activities and presentation of commission materials since then.”

As a portal for information, news, education and public engagement, the Bioethics Commission’s website continues the legacy of ACHRE’s gopher and its commitment to accessibility and transparency.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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