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A Long Road to an Informed Public Opinion

This guest post is from the BiotechBlog Intern,  Fintan Burke. Fintan is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. Do you have a response to Fintan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

Bioethics in the public eye has been recognised as an integral part of modern biology research for a while now. When the Human Genome Project began, James Watson dedicated 5% of the estimated $2.7bn budget to the Ethical, Social, and Legal Issues (ELSI) that concerned the project. As funding trends change and demand for scrutiny of the field increases, the public increasingly needs to be aware of the changes and misinformation presented to them.

Above all else, research is affected by funding. Traditionally biotechnology was funded from government-affiliated agencies, venture capitalists, or deals with Big Pharma. Recently, as the Wall Street Journal noted, funding from the latter two has been dwindling since the 2008 financial crisis. This has lead to researchers applying for grants from some underused sources and in the case of the UK the creation of incentives to bridge the funding gap.

Recognition of the commercial application of biotechnology has lead to the UK’s formation of the Synthetic Biology Leadership council, whose roadmap aims for an “economically vibrant” biology sector “of clear public benefit.” Particular emphasis is put on noting that “public acceptability…cannot be adequately dealt with through communication through the public.” Professor Joyce Tait serves on this leadership council and examines the social impact of scientific developments with the Innogen Center at the University of Edinburgh. “I think what the public needs to be educated about is judging the quality of the evidence that’s presented to them” she says when contacted. “There’s a terrible tendency in this area for any group, no matter what their motivation, to bias the evidence that’s around out there to suit their case … especially when it becomes the potential for conflict.”

 

For Peter Pitts, President and Co-Founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, communicating any research benefit to the public can be a problem. “Generally speaking the only thing you read about genetically modified foods – from those who actually think they’re a good idea – are extremely technical comments that are of use to almost nobody.” For Peter, scientific jargon and rhetoric are preventing any meaningful public discussion with researchers. “I can sit in a room with scientists, I can talk shorthand and know exactly what’s going on, but everybody else is completely confused like we’re speaking in some sort of ancient Latin or something.”

 

“Every explanation has to be a 94 PowerPoint slide presentation as opposed to the quick, obvious media savvy answer.”

 

Research potential may be further overstated by the press, skewing the image of the research even more. In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Hilary Rose notes the paper’s editorial on new stem cell research (which notes it may someday “make the blind see, the crippled walk, and the deaf hear”) as an example of the misinformation supplied to the public.

Henry I Miller of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University also feels that modern science journalism needs to be redressed. “Specialty journalism is waning, and reporters often create a “moral equivalence” between opposing views of an issue, even after one viewpoint has been discredited. Newspapers are failing, and people increasingly are using websites to become “informed” about issues.” This feeling of declining speciality journalism is echoed by Peter Pitts. “Years ago a journalist covering the FDA, for example, would have been covering the FDA for years; reading the ins and outs of what was going on. Today you’re talking to people who today they’re covering the FDA, yesterday were covering a baseball game.”

Anti-GM companies are also a persistent, unregulated source of biased information for the public. There are, however, indications of public attitudes cooling as seen in a public attitudes survey last year, where extreme pro- and anti-GM attitudes shrank and the indifferent middle ground grew. “I thought that was an excellent outcome” says Prof Tait “it was no longer a politically contentious issue for a lot of people.” She notes however a tendency for anti-biotech lobbies to misreport the findings still exists. “If you actually look at the way… it’s still being represented by anti-GM pressure groups, they’re focusing on the one end of that scale and they’re not pointing out that if you look at if you look at the other end of that scale there’s an equal move in the opposite direction!”

The main risk of a poor public attitude can be seen reflected in the funding decisions made in government. “I think among politicians there’s kind of a fear of the fear of the public, in Europe in particular [there’s] a really strong concern to avoid a kind of public backlash against any particular technology, I think that’s been true for nanotechnology, which was a subject of concern about 4 or 5 years ago” explains Prof Tait. “[Public opinion] seeps through to what governments will decide to fund and that then feeds through to the opportunities there are for the scientists.”

For Peter Pitts, one way to address that is to open up social media. “I think the FDA should facilitate the use of social media by regulated entities, by pharmaceutical companies, etc – to use it more robustly and to send a green light that they want them to do that.”

“I think we can get people more excited and get more people into the fields of science relative to young kids in high school – for example, pursuing a career in science. I think that will probably help politicians support larger budgets for research …and it will also allow people to accept the benefits of the science – GM foods for example – much more readily than they do now.”

About the author:

Fintan Burke is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. His main fields of interest include biomedical therapies and recombinant organisms.  Fintan may be contacted at fintan.burke2@mail.dcu.ie .

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