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Toward True Public Engagement in Science

As California struggles with a measles epidemic brought on by vaccine-refusing parents and surveys reveal that 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling on foods that contain DNA, it might appear that efforts to bridge the gap between scientific facts and how people views those facts have failed miserably.

But the issue is complicated. Simply throwing facts into the gap does little to bridge the divide – vaccine refusal is a good case study for this — because values often play a greater role than facts in determining public attitudes toward science. A better path to aligning public views with the facts of science, some have argued, is through public engagement — not as a way to bend people to the goals of scientific initiatives but as a way to open the process of scientific decision-making to public scrutiny.

The urgent need for true public engagement hit home for us at PLOS Biology several years ago, when one of our authors received devastating news.

Shortly before dawn on August 15, 2010, a small army of anti-GMO activists broke into an experimental vineyard in Colmar, the heart of France’s Alsatian winegrowing region. Within minutes, members of Les Faucheurs Volontaires (Voluntary Reapers) had uprooted 70 transgenic rootstocks and hacked them to bits.

The “reapers,” hell bent on destroying what they saw as anathema to France’s sacred heritage, obliterated seven years of work worth more than $1.5 million dollars in less time than it takes to drink a glass of the region’s famous Riesling.

The Colmar experimental vineyard, with Pinot Meunier grapevines grafted onto transgenic rootstocks before anti-GMO activists destroyed all 70 plants.
The Colmar experimental vineyard, with Pinot Meunier grapevines grafted onto transgenic rootstocks before anti-GMO activists destroyed the vineyard.

The attacks were particularly demoralizing for our author, Jean Masson, who directed the project for the French National Institute for Agronomic Research. Well aware of local antipathy to genetic engineering, he’d taken measures to make the research – designed to boost the inbred rootstocks’ tolerance of an ancient foe, the devastating grapevine fanleaf virus — more palatable to GMO opponents, which, in France, were legion.

His scientists had inserted a gene from the virus into the rootstock’s genome — leaving the fruit-bearing vines GMO-free — hoping the rootstocks would express just enough viral proteins to trigger the plant’s immune defenses, acting like a vaccine.

But even more important, Masson had taken careful steps to engage community members in the research process by creating a “monitoring committee” made of local winemakers, environmentalists, organic growers, neighbors and others with a stake in the project to help the scientists design their experimental protocol.

Masson had approached PLOS Biology just two months before the attack with a potential article demonstrating how the committee, using an approach called “interactive technology assessment,” had integrated the input of diverse stakeholders to shape the path of technological innovations in the heart of French winegrowing country, where resistance to innovation runs deeps.

Masson’s article was under review when he learned that his vines had been destroyed. The monitoring committee and the paper describing his ITA approach were all that remained of the research when the reapers were through.

Devastating as the attacks were, they did not erase Masson’s success in working with such an innovation-shy community to apply modern technologies to an age-old problem. It was that success that inspired us to consider what meaningful public engagement might look like.

How does public debate around emerging technologies change if people with diverse interests are invited to participate in research projects in meaningful ways rather than simply brought on as window dressing to indicate public approval? What if different viewpoints were considered as technologies were being developed, before a specific application became a fait accompli? If environmentalists’ concerns about the ecological effects of designing crops to withstand high levels of herbicides had been integrated into decisions governing the use of transgenic crops, for example, would Midwestern farmers have been able to imperil the monarch butterfly by decimating the only plant it uses to reproduce?

These are questions many scientists don’t often think about or even think are important, even though funders often build “public attitude” research into their grants. And they are not solely scientific questions. Science does not operate in a vacuum but, in pluralistic societies at least, in a complex environment with diverse and genuine competing interests where access to decisions that affect the public good is supposed to matter.

That’s why we asked social scientists who study the intersection of science and society to help us curate a series to explore the promise of true public engagement. We launched the Public Engagement in Science series four and a half years ago, with Masson’s article. Today, we have a thriving collection overseen by Claire Marris, director of Biotechnology, Pharmaceuticals and Public Policy Research Group at King’s College London.

The series has covered issues ranging from participatory medicine to the practice of hiding safety data under claims of confidential business information. Most recently, we ran a pair of articles that argued for transparency in the research-grant funding process — one argued for an incremental approach while the other called for more radical measures — so that researchers and the taxpayers who support them can see the decisions that lead to a successful proposal. Researcher reaction to the articles, including a sampling of responses on Twitter, was captured by Chris Woolston in Nature.

A theme that runs through the series is the need to move beyond seeing public engagement as a means to achieve predetermined ends – usually increasing public support for a particular initiative — toward engagement as an end in itself. What this means in practice is initiatives that aim simply to boost public acceptance of science but do not offer a mechanism for the discussion of different viewpoints and concerns is not public engagement but marketing.

The idea is not to provide a platform for zealots like the anti-GMO reapers or anti-vaccination diehards but to provide a space for open, reasoned discussion of ethical and social issues associated with the development and application of biotechnologies. It is not unreasonable to debate whether scientists should use the tools of synthetic biology to resurrect long-extinct species just because they can and because some think it would be cool to see ice age behemoths walk the earth again. It is not unreasonable to debate whether a genomics startup with a mission to “democratize creation” should be allowed to sell DNA kits to “anyone in the world” who wants to become a genetic designer.

Lest anyone doubts the need for finding approaches that accommodate divergent views on science-related issues, a new study from the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows just how differently scientists and nonscientists (aka the “general public”) see the world. The biggest divide, perhaps not surprisingly, concerns the safety of genetically modified foods: 57% of nonscientists view GM foods as generally unsafe to eat compared to 88% of AAAS scientists who say GM foods are generally safe.

In the study, the Pew Research Center notes that it has made a “more deliberate and formal commitment to study the intersection of science with all aspects of society” … “because scientific advances and challenges are influencing an ever-greater share of American and global life. The pace of innovation and the urgency of scientific issues have captured a growing share of policy energy and at times generated more and more dispute.”

When Masson and his colleagues invited public scrutiny of their work to use genetic engineering to help grapevines fight an ancient nemesis, they never intended to change the minds of entrenched anti-GMO ideologues. Their goal was to offer the community a chance to look behind the curtain, to see science in action and demystify the process of genetic modification, and help identify questions that might even strengthen the work to find a pathway of innovation that worked for a change-resistant community.

In the end, Masson and his colleagues noted, although participants often engaged in heated debates, a shared commitment to respecting different viewpoints as well as the demands of science allowed them to “rise above a binary confrontational mode of ‘for or against.’”

Inviting people to influence the way technologies of broad interest to society might be applied through public engagement initiatives will not necessarily increase public acceptance of those technologies. But that’s not the point. Taxpayers shell out billions of dollars to underwrite research every year. It’s in everyone’s interest that they have a stake in the output of the research they fund.

Discussion
  1. It should be noted that despite the community engagement of Masson and his colleagues, those who destroyed the tests were supported by mainstream politicians, got favorable press coverage, and were eventually acquitted by the judge (http://presse-inserm.fr/en/acquittal-of-colmar-gmo-reapers/12579/).

    Not that I don’t think that we should continue to try to reach out through public engagement, but I find it difficult to entirely share the optimistic tone of this post.

  2. Liza:
    Excellent piece and analysis of a problem that requires immediate attention. Working at the Galveston National Laboratory, we are aware of the importance to involve the community in the scientific conversations, as a result, we are the only BSL-3/BSL-4 facility outside the CDC in a US city with full support of the community.

  3. I appreciate how distressing the results of this particular effort were, but even Masson feels that the experiment was worthwhile. I think change, if it ever comes, will be slow and that we have to accept that die-hard opponents will likely always be around, whether we’re talking about genetic engineering or vaccines. Surveys suggest that the vast majority of people who aren’t sure about the safety of GM foods or vaccines aren’t fanatics, but reasonable people who aren’t steeped in the science. I don’t see how we can expect change to occur if we’re not willing to try new strategies that recognize the social nature of these problems.

  4. I understand that die-hards will always be around. I have problems understanding that they are supported enthusiastically by mainstream politicians, media and justice, especially in the context of the efforts of the scientists in this case.

    Still, I am stubbornly optimistic. I continue to explain and discuss GMOs (and other topics, but none are as hot-buttom as GMOs in French-speaking Europe in my experience) in French, on my blog, on Reddit, on Twitter, and in person when I can. You have to accept glacier-speed progress if any, in an environment where even most scientists who never gave much thought to the matter are automatically anti-GMO.

    But I really fail to see how the example of the vines in Colmar illustrates in any way that progress can be made. It illustrates au contraire that huge efforts can be useless.

  5. We’re going to have to agree to disagree here. The relationships forged among the different stakeholders on the committee lasted beyond the damage done to the project. Terrorists destroyed the vineyard but not the relationships.

  6. I find this paragraph rather naive:
    When Masson and his colleagues invited public scrutiny of their work to use genetic engineering to help grapevines fight an ancient nemesis, they never intended to change the minds of entrenched anti-GMO ideologues. Their goal was to offer the community a chance to look behind the curtain, to see science in action and demystify the process of genetic modification, and help identify questions that might even strengthen the work to find a pathway of innovation that worked for a change-resistant community.

    If you don’t change minds, ideologues will continue to do these things. The people who take these actions will not be dissuaded by a look behind the curtain or demystification and they have no interest in “strengthening” the work – unless you change their minds. The target here is wrong: a better look at what they hate won’t help. You need to stop the hating, which is fundamentally irrational. Opening doors with no attempt to persuade will never resolve this problem.

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