Science Communication: Challenges To Ensure Innovation Can Prove Itself Scientifically

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Communication challenges faced by scientists by looking specifically at gene drives and addressing misunderstandings.

John Entine is a science journalist who has been writing about sustainability issues in biotechnology for 30 years. He has written numerous books on both population genetic related issues and agricultural biotechnology. Presenting at the Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress, he gave his perspective on the communication challenges faced by scientists by looking specifically at gene drives and addressing misunderstandings about what the technology can do and active opposition to it by some environmental groups.

John believes that many scientists are insulated from the pushback generated by anti-biotech advocacy groups. In his presentation, he acknowledges that some of the issues they raise are serious while some are not supported by the evidence. He argues these groups have the power to potentially block gene drive technology in the same way the anti- GMO groups of the 1990s did.

So, for example, by invoking the precautionary principle, the groups can freely talk of “potential species extinction” and “unintended consequences.” By linking CRISPR research to corporate enterprises, they can bypass the fact that the research takes place in small labs or research by people motivated to eradicate diseases, such as malaria and reduce the need for herbicides.

There are potential gene drive solutions to several pests and fungal pathogens. Polls about gene drives show that there is public uncertainty about the benefits of the technology. But John believes that this can be managed with an effective public relations programme. Not addressing public concerns has consequences. Even though the European science community is pretty unanimous on the benefits of transgenics & CRISPR gene editing, the regulatory system has limited their availability because of a lack of political backbone by the establishment in Europe. That could very well happen with gene drives without a deliberate policy of engagement with the public.

“We should not assume that these technologies, even CRISPR, will be available to us to the degree that we hope.”
John Entine

The media has a role to play in countering the narrative of groups opposed to gene-editing technology. But the fact is many journalists are not familiar with genetics or biotechnology. Furthermore, the debate is taking place on social media. So, a story addressing the benefits of the technology in Nature Magazine or Scientific American may not be seen at all.

John says, “My entreaty is to the scientists here. Uncomfortable as it may be to step out of your comfort zone, it is important that you discuss these things in public forums.” The naive assumption that the bedazzling nature of CRISPR will convince people that they should embrace it will work over a 20 or 25-year time frame but not over a five- or ten-year period. As was the case with GMOs, many products and innovations that could have been enormously helpful in the agricultural sector and biomedicine have fallen by the wayside because scientists were unwilling to speak up.