A Public Scientist in the Biotechnology Debate?
14 Sep, 2007 01:02 pm
Science and technology play an increasingly prominent and often
controversial role in modern human society. From biotechnology and genetic engineering to computers, cell phones and nanotechnology, ordinary citizens encounter and even depend on science and technology in their daily lives. Yet most people have little idea how these wondrous things work, understand their risks or even know how - or even if--they are regulated for safety. With all the controversy and misinformation especially surrounding biotechnology, how are ordinary concerned citizens supposed to acquire the scientifically accurate information needed to reach a rational and defensible decision whether to support or reject this or any other technology?
Anxiety is not relieved with assurances from the industry spokespeople who developed the GE foods and crops in the first place. After all, they are in business of creating and selling the products, so can they be trusted to be completely forthright about any potential health or environmental safety problems with their own products? On the other side are activist anti-technology and anti-corporate groups who are quick to instill fear of the minds of the already uneasy consumers. Such groups also cannot be trusted; after all, they have an agenda and, furthermore, depend on instilling fear to generate sustained donations from frightened consumers.
Certainly, there are sincere private, public interest and educational groups dedicated to disseminating factual information and advice to interested citizens. Such groups have facilitated public involvement in controversial issues for many years. But informing the public over current controversies involving biotechnology is not easy; the knowledge required is highly specialized. Not many people are conversant in molecular genetics - needed to understand the complexities of genetic engineering. And fewer still have sufficient knowledge of agriculture and food production to be able to properly contextualize the risks from biotechnological means of breeding with the risks from traditional breeding technologies.
So who, then, can provide credible information on the benefits and hazards of new technologies? Clearly, it requires scientific experts with agriculture and food production knowledge, communication skills and, crucially, public credibility and trust. Industry employed scientists are quickly dismissed by activists, as they may have technical expertise, but lack public credibility. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) not only lack public credibility (except in some geographical locations), they usually lack scientific expertise. Who's left? Scientists in the employ of the public, either in academic institutions or government agencies. These experts are employed by the people and work for the public good. They have the technical expertise in both science and technology, and enjoy a high
degree of public trust and credibility. But, unfortunately, they often lack public education or outreach as a job responsibility. All too often, public scientists who would do an excellent job at public education say "I'd like to, but it's not in my job description, and I'll get criticized when I come up for promotion". This is a sad and entirely unnecessary situation.
In any democratic society, people have a right to not only know, but also understand, where their tax monies are spent. Much of the foundation of biotechnology, as applied to medicine as well as agriculture and food, was conducted by public scientists using public funds. Therefore, public scientists should be encouraged (if not required) to explain their professional activities to the people who pay their salaries. And they should do so not as advocates, but as educators. Public service groups do an excellent job of teaching new immigrants about, for example, political processes in their new country, but suggesting which party to support would be irresponsible and reprehensible. Similarly with scientific education-- The public doesn't need to learn the technical intricacies or instruction on which side of the debate they should support, but they can learn the context of how biotechnology differs from older technologies, and they should be encouraged to find a position that most closely reflects their personal worldview. By providing scientifically accurate information and facts instead of opinions or preferences, public scientists engaging the public in this manner will instill a better informed and science savvy populace, much better able to engage in the public debate and decide for themselves what position to take.
Alan McHughen, Public perceptions of biotechnology, Biotechnology Journal, Vol 2, Issue 9, September 2007