Biotech literacy project bootcamp

If there’s one thing that the debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has taught us, it’s that the message matters. According to Steve Lindow, a Berkeley professor and a participant in the first field  trial for GMOs, the public’s resistance to GMOs in food stems from fundamental relationship problems between scientists and the public. “Perhaps what has caused the most anxiety about transgenic crops is that Americans do not trust scientists,” Lindow explains. “In particular, [they] do not trust the government regulatory procedures that involve scientists.”

In order to develop skills in communicating scientific consensus and improving scientist-public relations, students, academics, journalists, and representatives from industry converged in Davis, California for the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project Bootcamp in early June. The conference focused on science communication issues and how these interact with societal views of the scientific community. It focused on public acceptance of agricultural GMOs.

Three days of jam-packed panels sought to refresh scientists on public engagement skills and to educate journalists on GMOs. Newcomers learned historical perspectives on GM crops in the food system and saw presentations on cutting-edge GM technologies and regulatory hurdles GM products face. The topics discussed ranged from bees in the food system to possible synergies between organic agriculture and genetic engineering, and speakers came from a variety of backgrounds. “There were academics, journalists, science writers, industry executives, registered nutritionists, African scientists, economists, and a wave of grad students eager to be involved,” said Mikel Shybut, a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology who attended the conference.

Speakers discussed why the public doubts the scientific consensus on GMO safety and suggested strategies for regaining consumer acceptance. For instance, comparing the hypothetical risks of GMOs to real and measurable risks in the food system, such as food-borne pathogens in produce, might empower the public to engage in agricultural issues. Furthermore, they recommended that scientists focus on articulating safety and environmental benefits of GM technology, like reducing pesticide and fertilizer use which increases consumer safety and food supply resilience. Finally, speakers also encouraged scientists to be realistic with the public about limitations in GM technologies, as this could increase trust in the primary message about possible benefits.

The conference also covered communication mechanics and available communication channels between scientists and laypeople. Young scientists learned how to establish and maintain an online presence, the merits of group or personal blogs, and basic social media etiquette. Seasoned communicators stressed connecting with audiences in addition to presenting facts, arguing that audiences will be more receptive to a relatable speaker’s message.

Attendees discussed the media’s sometimes sensational treatment of scientific issues. Journalists stressed that controversy sells, which pressures some writers to focus on nonexistent controversy in order to gain a broader readership. To avoid miscommunication, speakers suggested that scientists approach journalists with respect instead of as enemies, presenting facts and allowing journalists to come to their own conclusions.

The conference was not without disagreement as well—particularly over the relationship between business and science. While attendees shared anecdotes indicating that GMO acceptance outside of the USA faces similar issues seen domestically, representatives from developing countries stressed that public controversies over GMO safety in the United States are in some ways not applicable in places with widespread food insecurity or fewer food choices.

“The diversity of voices represented was certainly different than any other science conference I’ve been to,” said Shybut, who thinks that Berkeley students are positioned to bring a wide range of perspectives to the science communication table. “Berkeley is a really interesting place to be a plant biologist researching major food crops. It’s probably one of the few places where I could concurrently take a graduate level seminar on GMOs, as well as Michael Pollan’s  ‘Edible Education’ class on the food movement,” referring to Berkeley Professor of Journalism Michael Pollan, who is a food activist and sometimes critical of GMOs.

While diverse voices are a useful element in science communication, Professor Lindow also believes that the process of science should guide outreach. “While there is certainly a need for more pubic  education on science, what is needed more than factual information on pertinent aspects of science is education on the scientific method and how theories are developed and tested.” This process of  continual refinement is core to the role of science and crucial for understanding how science can be used to make decisions as a society. With the tools gained from this year’s literacy bootcamp, scientists and journalists alike are better equipped to tackle these complex topics.

– James Anderson-Furgeson is a graduate student in microbiology.

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