Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council

July 17, 2022 Nina Sartor
August 26, 2020 Simon Wright

Independent ministerial advisory committee to advise the NZ Government on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology on the basis of dialogue with the public that was established in December 2002 and disestablished in March 2009

Mission and Purpose

To advise the New Zealand Government on the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology by promoting and participating in public dialogue and providing unbiased, appropriate information.

Origins and Development

Established in December 2002 by the New Zealand Government in response to a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, which found that NZ's policy making processes had missed the cultural, ethical and spiritual issues raised by modern biotechnologies such as genetic modification.

Its Terms of Reference reflected global developments in science policy making including those contained in the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (2000), which said that the culture of policymaking needed to change ‘so that it becomes normal to bring science and the public into dialogue about new developments at an early stage.’

Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding

An independent body that was free to set its own work programme within a Terms of Reference. Its 10-12 members were appointed by the Government not on the basis of expertise in bioethics, ethics or science but rather to ensure diversity of training, experience and background. The Council always had a significant Māori presence.

The Council was supported by a full time secretariat of 3-4 people and had an annual budget of NZ$1.5M.

Specializations, Methods and Tools

The Council was a pioneer in the development and use of public engagement processes based on public dialogue and deliberation in both face-to-face and online contexts.

Major Projects and Events

The Council organised 2 nationwide public dialogue processes: one on 'Human genes in other organisms' (2004) and the other on 'Xenotransplantation: animal-to-human transplantation' (2005). It organised 1 nationwide public deliberation on 'Who gets born? Pre-birth testing' (2007-8).

It also did work on nanotechnology, human embryo research, issues of Māori tikanga ('the Māori way of doing things correctly'), and how to engage the public on complex science issues.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The Council engaged with thousands of New Zealanders in new ways. Independent evaluation showed that high levels of satisfaction with its processes, which it learned to make more relevant to policy makers. It contributed to the evidence base about engaging the public effectively on complex issues and showed that lay citizens can deliberate well online even on highly contested issues.

Despite domestic and international recognition, the New Zealand Government never formally respond to any of its recommendations and Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council was disestablished in March 2009.


Its numerous reports and publications are available via an archival copy of its corporate website hosted by the National Library of New Zealand and, at the time of entering this text, via the link below.