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Scientists are trying new ways to convince a skeptical public

Public involvement during the research, and even before it, and not only at the end, may help align the research with public values

"Researchers must be willing not only to be attentive to the questions and concerns raised by the public and not be satisfied with trying to repel them, but also to respond to them - even if this means they have to shelve technology that they believe may change the world." Illustration: US Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge.
"Researchers must be willing not only to be attentive to the questions and concerns raised by the public and not be satisfied with trying to repel them, but also to respond to them - even if this means they have to shelve technology that they believe may change the world." Illustration: US Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge.

By Brooke Burrell, the article is published with the approval of Scientific American Israel and the Ort Israel Network 31.10.2017

Robert Shapiro, who at the time headed the company Monsanto, stunned in 1999 at Bai Kens Greenpeace In London when he hit on a sin and confessed: we are guilty. Only three years earlier, the company released a new line of genetically modified crops (GE), and the fierce public reaction was not long in coming. After a failed launch, lacking transparency, Shapiro said candidly, the company responded to the public attack with polemic instead of dialogue. "Our confidence in this technology... is perceived by many, and one can certainly understand why, as arrogance or even arrogance," Shapiro said. "Because we thought it was our job to persuade, we often forgot to listen."

But the damage is already done. Fifteen years later, only 37% of Americans believed that genetically modified foods were safe to eat, compared to 88% of scientists, as shown by surveys conducted by Pew Research Center. Regulatory bodies in the US have struggled for years with the question of theLabeling of genetically modified foods. In 2015, more than half of the EU countries officially banned on importing, marketing or growing genetically modified crops.

Science does not happen in a vacuum. But looking back, many of the researchers failed on the front of the communication of their scientific work, or even refused to recognize the complicated relationship between their work and the way it is perceived by the public when its products leave the laboratory for the market. "The dismal experience we had with genetically engineered foods is a clear example of what happens in the event of a failure in communication with the public, when we do not provide the public with accurate information and do not allow them to examine the alternatives and weigh the risk versus the benefit of them," she says R. Alta Charo, an expert onBioethics and professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When there is a disconnect in communication between science and the society it serves, the resulting confusion and mistrust cloud the atmosphere and cloud everything - starting with research, through investments in industry, and ending with regulation.

Today, in the new era of breakthrough technologies in genetic engineering, for example CRISPR וpushing genes, scientists are more careful than ever not to repeat the same mistakes. These innovative tools give researchers an unprecedented ability togene editingof any living creature, and the technology of gene pushing allows them to change the genetic code of entire wild populations. These scientific breakthroughs may help solve serious global problems, starting with reducing health threats, such as malaria, and ending with growing crops that are more resistant to climate change. But even if the expectations that scientists place on CRISPR and gene pushing are realized - and the products of these technologies are proven to be safe for both humans and the environment - what good will even the most promising technology be if the public rejects it?

"In the absence of transparency, we may witness extreme polarization in society," he says Jason Delborn, professor of science, policy and society at North Carolina State University. Groups of concerned citizens may feel excluded, while those promoting the innovative technologies will not receive vital feedback needed to improve their design and safety. "This will put the technology at risk of immediate suspension the moment any difficulty arises," Ober Delborn.

In order to prevent such a scenario, some researchers are taking a new approach. Instead of presenting a finished technology to the public at the end of all its research and development stages, they approach the public proactively and ask for comments and reactions, sometimes even before the research begins. Admittedly, this approach does not guarantee political and social unanimity, says Delborn, "but it contributes to the promotion of innovation in a more democratic spirit." Opening an early dialogue with regulators, with groups working to protect the quality of the environment and with communities where the innovative tools are expected to be applied allows scientists to change and adapt their research plans and, at the same time, gain greater control over the narrative of their work.

Take for example the professor of evolutionary genetics Austin Brett. In 2003 Brett published theArticle The first theoretical one on pushing genetically engineered genes. Shortly thereafter, Brett and his colleagues launched a research project, directed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in order to test whether it is possible to control by pushing genes in mosquitoes Anopheles, the spreaders of malaria. In those pre-CRISPR days, the technology was so speculative that "there didn't seem to be any point in wasting people's time" trying to raise their awareness of the issue, Brett says. According to him, today, after the technology of gene pushing has become applicable and may be ready for regulatory evaluation within five years, it is essential to talk about the issue with communities where the technology is expected to be applied, "and this, so that we can do things that will be acceptable not only in the eyes of the regulators, but also in the eyes of the public as a whole".

The call for discussion comes mainly from the funding agencies. In 2016, it was published by The American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine of the USA Report Titled "The pushing of the genes is already on the horizon: the advancement of science, the direction of uncertainties and the adaptation of research to public values." The sponsors of the project - various federal agencies, the Gates Foundation andFoundation for the US National Institutes of Health - It explicitly calls on all parties concerned to submit comprehensive recommendations on ethics and communication with the public, says Keegan Sawyer, the project manager in the framework of which the report was published. Other reports of the American National Academies also deal with these issues, but the weight given to each of them and the way they were presented in the report that dealt with gene pushing were "extraordinary", says Sawyer.

The American Advanced Security Research Agency (DARPA) is among the bodies attentive to the guidelines. As part of a new project launched by the agency, Safe Genes, which is supposed to fund seven research projects whose purpose is to examine how to implement gene pushing in an efficient, controlled and safe manner, all projects that the agency funds are required to include detailed plans for communicating with the public and promoting its involvement in the process. One of the recipients of the DARPA research grant is a team at North Carolina State University of which Delburn is a member. He is responsible for the social engagement issue in the gene push project which aims to eliminate invasive mice from remote islands to protect seabirds and other wildlife. Although the research has already begun, Delborn says that his partners "made it clear from the beginning that in the event of public opposition to this technology, whether for ethical reasons or due to concerns about the risks inherent in it - and even if the scientists do not see it that way - there will be an option to say no to the continuation of the research." And in simple words, the scientists must take into account the possibility that they will be required to stop the project.

An even more far-reaching position than he takes Kevin Aswalt, who studies interference in evolutionary processes through genetic engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eswalt is studying genetic technologies that will prevent wild mice from carrying and spreading the pathogen that causesLyme disease. In 2016, even before he started working in the laboratory, Aswalt visited the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, where the disease is widespread, to assess whether its residents would be interested in genetic approaches - including pushing genes as a solution to the problem, although he himself expressed his opinion against this possibility, since he Considered it inappropriate in this case. The residents of Nantucket accepted Aswalt's advice regarding gene pushing, but the local community is exploring the possibility of using an alternative technology to vaccinate the mice against the pathogen.

Aswalt directly faced a specific ethical dilemma that arises in the context of pushing genes intended for distribution and assimilation in the common environment: who should decide whether to implement such technology and how? "I was amazed to see that we got so much attention just because we reached out to the communities concerned before taking any action," says Aswalt. "I think that says something about the way science is generally conducted."

Will and to what extent the recent efforts in this direction really dispel the concerns and doubts? This "depends on the question of how well those who are supposed to be attentive to the murmurs of the public's heart will respond to the concerns and doubts that trouble it," says Jennifer Kuzma, who serves as co-director of The Center for Genetic Engineering and its Application in Society at North Carolina State University. In other words, the researchers must be willing not only to be attentive to the questions and concerns raised by the public and not content with trying to repel them, but also to respond to them - even if this means that they will have to shelve technology, which they believe may change the world.

About the writer

Brook Burrell - Journalist and writer who deals in scientific writing and often reports on what is happening in the field of biotechnology.

2 תגובות

  1. Why do 'scientists' (social engineering 'scientists' from the humanities 'faculties') need to convince anyone? Why not just free the public to think and do what they want (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else) instead of what someone with a particular agenda wants them to think? Enough of the utopian social engineering. It has already failed countless times, including in Germany, the Soviet Union, Venezuela, North Korea... It only resulted in blood and fire and millions of victims that will still be due to the processes in Europe. When will you realize that all a person really needs is physical and mental freedom? The introduction will already come by itself from the very nature of human curiosity and not from an artificial push that has always failed and will fail

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