without effective public engagement COULD GENOME EDITING BECOME THE NEW BOGEYMAN OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH?
Scientists and public engagement professionals need to take action sooner rather than later to avoid the debate around genome editing going the same way as the GMO debacle of the 1990s.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first ever ‘test tube baby’ it seems crazy to think that IVF could ever have been considered to be anything other than a widely accepted force for good. Over 6 million people across the world owe their very existence to IVF treatments. But when the technology was first introduced to the public the response was by no means universally positive. Newspaper articles of the day predicted that the technology would hasten the arrival of some dystopian future, warning the public of the dangers of Frankensteinian scientists trying to play God.
Four decades on there is relatively little in the way of opposition to IVF treatments but a different scientific advance is once again attracting very similar concerns: genome editing, a technology that is portrayed by some of the more alarmist journalists as having the power to bring about a world full of homogeneous, genetically enhanced 'designer babies'.
Last week the National Co-ordinating Centre For Public Engagement (NCCPE) and Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge jointly hosted a day-long event at the Wellcome Collection in London to explore how the scientific and public engagement community should be tackling the issue of genome editing, bringing together scientists, public engagement practitioners and bioethicists.
The goal was not to set out a concrete agenda, merely to pose questions, gather people’s thoughts and start coming up with some tools and ideas to encourage effective public engagement with genome editing.
It was a timely event. Even though genome editing might not top the list of pressing public debates at the moment that’s largely because the technology is still in its infancy and many people haven’t yet been asked to seriously consider what they think about it. That time will come though and we need to be ready for it when it does.
During a conversation I had with the British Science Association’s Katherine Mathieson, recorded for the Research Comms podcast a couple of months back, Katherine recalled the controversy around GMOs in the late 1990s, using it as a compelling example of how not to engage the public with controversial emerging technologies. On that occasion scientists joined the conversation way too late, thinking perhaps that xyz. But their reluctance to get involved meant that their voices were totally absent from the debate, allowing alarmist, sceptical voices to fill the void. The public imagination was lit and GMOs became irredeemably linked to unscrupulous corporations and hubristic scientists.
Whether or not you think GMOs are a good thing or not is irrelevant. The issue is around the quality of the debate that occurred. If debate is weak or one-sided then the public is being let down, as they're not being given the opportunity to make an informed choice when it comes to the relationship they want to have with a new technology.
We must not let the same thing happen with the debate around genome editing. The time to engage the public is now, before the subject becomes so culturally and politically loaded that healthy debate gets shut down.
So events such as last week's, which give researchers and public engagement practitioners the opportunity to start formulating ideas and strategies around how best to engage the public with genome editing, are important and this one in particular raised some interesting ideas. Here are a couple of takeaways from the day:
Role of the Press
Sarah Norcross from Progress Educational Trust pointed out that communication of research by the press to the public might be one-directional but no other form of media has the same reach as newspapers and broadcast news channels. With that reach comes the potential to spark conversations amongst the general public.
But it's something of an understatement to say that leaving it to the press to communicate the nuanced ideas associated with the science of genome editing is a risky strategy.
One of the aspects of press reporting on genome editing that most frustrated the attendees was the ubiquitous use of the phrase 'designer babies', which was deemed to be misleading and carrying negative connotations.
A number of those who spoke at the event, including Robin Lovell Badge from the Francis Crick Institute emphasised how important it is to use the right language. Accuracy and consistency are essential to avoid confusion. 'Genome Editing' is the preferred term to use, not 'gene editing' or 'gene modification etc.'
Having said all that, Sophie Duncan from the NCCPE then made a good counter-point that it's easy to get hung up on technical definitions but that we should accept that the public will come with their own questions, voiced in their own language, and that we should be ready to engage with them using those terms.
Sarah Norcross advocated the use of clear, simple analogies to aid understanding of the science, and pointed out that they shouldn't take longer to explain than the science itself!
The day ended with a productive group discussion about what purpose a national conversation around genome editing might have, what we would like to happen as a result, and who we should be engaging with for that purpose.
Ultimately, for me it comes down to a desire to strip away any sensationalism and try to engage people in such a way that allows open debate about the ethical issues related to the science. And to do so with enough time that such a debate will help drive the direction of genome editing research so that it has the most positive impact on society possible.
After the event I'm looking forward to collaborating with other public engagement practitioners on projects that will help to inform the public about the science, so that they're better equipped to have a robust debate about its potential.
**To hear the fascinating story of how pioneering neuroscientist, Sir Doug Turnbull, campaigned to persuade the UK Parliament to allow controversial fertility treatment, mitochondrial donation, check out this episode of the Research Comms podcast**
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.