Analysis: Trying to refresh a sullied image

November 24, 2000

With the BSE crisis, the unknown risk of radiation from mobile phones and unexpected floods attributed to global warming, science has had a rocky ride in the past few years.

Few would deny that the public is losing faith in science, indeed some would argue that there is a growing tide of anti-science in public opinion. The life sciences in particular have come in for criticism.

However, with the new millennium a new milestone has been reached - the first complete draft of the human genome.

This, together with fast increasing understanding of how DNA functions in all forms of life, promises to revolutionise modern science, from food production techniques to the way we deal with disease.

The problem is that the general public, at least in Europe, does not seem to appreciate this. A recent European Union poll showed a dramatic decrease in public trust towards biotechnology. It revealed that two-thirds of Europeans do not want genetically modified organisms in their food. And it also revealed a lack of understanding - a third of respondents believed that ordinary tomatoes did not contain genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes did.

In response to this, Philippe Busquin, European commissioner for research, set up the Life Sciences High Level Group six months ago. Made up of 11 eminent European life scientists, it was intended as a scientific advisory body to steer a debate with the public.

The first major event organised by the LSHLG was a meeting in Brussels at the beginning of November called "Genetics and the Future of Europe". Its aim, according to LSHLG chairman Axel Kahn, a French geneticist, was "to meet representatives of the stakeholders in genetics in order to organise for the future a permanent dialogue between society and its life scientists".

Scientists from across Europe, special interest groups and members of industry heard speakers discuss the use of genetics in four areas - human health, food integrity and supply, valuing biodiversity and the responsible use of genetics. In each area, the challenges to be met, the current science and technology and society's response were reviewed.

Opening the conference, Commissioner Busquin said: "There is a gulf between science and the man in the street's value of the work. The public is not familiar with how to interpret future predictions. Genetically modified organisms are technologies with lengthy lead times, one or two generations. This gives us time to discuss it in public. We must ensure that with the 21st century, science is reconciled to society."

Speakers emphasised how incomplete our knowledge of genetics is - genetic engineering has only been around for 30 years. Jean Weissenbach, of the French genetic sequencing centre Genoscope, said that we still do not understand up to 40 per cent of human genes. He added that the genes that give predispositions to disease will take decades to find and understand. Designer babies are still a long way off.

The conference delegates agreed that scientists must ensure that they share their research with the public. One delegate talked of his frustration at trying to enter a public discussion on GMOs when "the public doesn't know what DNA is".

But lack of knowledge was not necessarily seen as the cause of antipathy to genetic technology. Indeed, science writer Matt Ridley said the American population is less scientifically literate than that of Europe, but it accepts GM foods - 28.7 million hectares of transgenic crops grew in the US in 1999.

Mr Ridley warned that "gene" is becoming a contaminated word like "nuclear". He implored scientists not to bypass or try to silence the media, but to seek to get their message across.

Several speakers pointed out that the public perception of science is influenced by cultural values rather than scientific knowledge. Public trust in official statements and respect for authority were seen as being at an all time low, leading to a lack of consumer confidence. Decisions were being made at a distance from society and public fears had been too readily dismissed, leading people to believe governments act only in economic interests.

Chris Leaver, head of the plant science department at Oxford University, said that although scientists have an obligation to tell the wider public about their research, the public has no obligation to listen. Moreover, special interest groups often have sophisticated publicity machines, enabling them to spread misinformation. For this reason, scientists have a responsibility to get involved with the media and speak in language that the public can understand.

At the beginning of the conference, Commissioner Busquin called for the public to be reconciled to science. But a confusion emerged during the two-day event as to whether this meant scientists should listen to public opinion and direct their work accordingly or whether they should work to get the public to agree with them.

Many delegates called on the precautionary principle to be applied in science. The principle, which basically states, "when in doubt, don't", is to be incorporated by the EU into its planned European Research Area. But the wisdom of this was called into doubt. Andrew Moore of the European Molecular Biology Organisation pointed out that it was somewhat self-defeating for science, as experimentation is all about uncertainty.

John Martin, of University College London's medical department, suggested input from philosophers would be essential to enable any genetic research to proceed, especially with regard to the human genome.

He said: "Genetics is playing with our own selves, rather than observing the world. Scientists need to understand the principles of philosophy. It's not just about weighing risks. We need a philosophical debate to produce rules for doctors and scientists."

The LSHLG plans to organise what Professor Kahn calls "large public Euroconferences" - events coordinated by the European Commission, local newspapers and universities in cities around Europe that are designed to put scientists and the stakeholder public in direct contact.

LSHLG has also relaunched little-used funds for initiatives to publicise science by establishing dialogues, initiating debates and encouraging education.

The conference was criticised for being too general, not providing an intimate enough atmosphere for real debate and having delegates who were not a true reflection of the general public. Some of the participants complained that it had been overrun with self-interested pressure groups. Others said that not enough interest groups were invited.

The conference concluded that dialogue between lay citizens and scientists was essential in the future in Europe.

Professor Kahn said: "Scientists need to improve their understanding of citizens' motivations, expectations, hopes and fears, and to identify key values constituting an essential cement for society."

How successful such a programme will be remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the British public has been voting with its feet, refusing to buy GM products, while protest groups destroy GM trial crops.

Nick Russell, senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College, told The THES that the more people know about science, the more critical they become of it.

He said: "Because people don't like GM, scientists feel that if only they could tell them what it really is, it would displace the Frankenstein myth.

"But this isn't reasonable. Which argument wins is down to the cultural environment, not the rationality of the argument. Scientists don't understand that outside the laboratory, evidence isn't evaluated in the same way."

He added that getting the world to accept the benefits of genetic engineering would not be quick or easy and advised scientists that it was time to hire professional public relations consultants.

THE RISKS OF REJECTING GENETIC ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGY

The risks of producing GM food are well publicised, but what of the risks of not producing GM food?

Chris Leaver, head of the plant science department at Oxford University, said it was crucial to carry on GM research. It is a struggle to feed the world population of 6 billion, he said. So what will happen when it balloons to the expected 9 billion by 2050?

Professor Leaver believes it is vital to produce crops that have increased yields, require less chemical fertilisers and pesticides and have enriched nutritional value.

For example, golden rice, developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, has three genes inserted that make the rice rich in vitamin A. This could prevent blindness in an estimated 124 million children worldwide who have a vitamin A deficiency.

Like the Life Sciences High Level Group chairman Axel Kahn, Leaver believes that the West, which sees no need for GM products in its society, has no right to deny the developing world a technology that could solve many of its problems.

Geneticists argue that GM crops may mean less land has to be cultivated to produce food - allowing countryside to be restored to the forests and hedgerows.

Plants could be used to grow edible vaccines, eradicating the need for needles. They might also provide a sustainable energy source.

Biodiversity and the environment could benefit from genetic research. Knowledge of microbes is held back by problems cultivating them in the laboratory. Genetic manipulation, according to Enrica Galli of the Universita degli Studi di Milano, could enable scientists to synthesise these tiny organisms to produce environmentally friendly ways of clearing pollution, herbicides and pesticides and replacements for antibiotics.

This will be particularly useful for treating re-emerging diseases such as tuberculosis.

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