Rapidly advancing scientific knowledge and its applications from a wide variety of disciplines–genetic engineering, climate science, synthetic biology, stem cell research, and others –are often the subject of multifaceted societal debates. Some of the debates revolve around scientific questions that scientists, as respected authorities, are called on to answer: How fast is the global climate warming? Does the consumption of genetically engineered corn cause allergic reactions? And some of the debates revolve around complex ethical or policy questions to which scientists, as stakeholders and not necessarily authorities, may contribute: Should research involving human embryos be allowed? Should people or institutions be allowed to hold patents on genes?
Given the multifaceted nature of many societal debates about science, how can scientists engage with members of the public to empower decision-making and participation in public policy? That question led the National Research Council’s Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences (PILS; See Appendix D) to hold a 2-day workshop on January 15–16, 2015, in Washington, DC, to discuss key components of scientific engagement with the public The workshop presentations and discussions dealt with perspectives on scientific engagement in a world where science is interpreted through a variety of lenses, including cultural values and political dispositions, and with strategies based on evidence in social science to improve public conversation about controversial topics in science.
The workshop focused on public perceptions and debates about genetically engineered plants and animals, commonly known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), because the development and application of GMOs are heavily debated among some stakeholders, including scientists. For some applications of GMOs, the societal debate is so contentious that it can be difficult for members of the public, including policy-makers, to make decisions. Thus, although the workshop focused on issues related to public interfaces with the life science that apply to many science policy debates, the discussions are particularly relevant for anyone involved with the GMO debate. The Statement of Task for the workshop planning committee is in Box 1-1
Key topics discussed during the workshop included the following:
- The cognitive processes involved in how people evaluate science information and make decisions.
- The information environment that influences public perceptions of science.
- The cultural and political contexts that surround science in general and GMOs in particular.
In his opening comments, Dietram Scheufele, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and chair of the PILS Roundtable, remarked that application of GMOs, particularly in food and agriculture, have been on the public agenda for a long time; it is not a new issue. He asked, Why are we still talking about GMOs? He offered two primary answers to this question:
- GMO research is a highly politicized field of science, which is true of “most emerging technologies”.
- GMO research is post-normal – science for which political systems are uncertain and the decision stakes tend to be high.
An ad hoc committee will plan and convene a public workshop to explore the public interfaces between scientists and citizens (e.g., consumers, farmers, and corporate or government policy-makers) in the context of genetically engineered (GE) organisms. The workshop discussions will explore the empirical findings from social science disciplines on market dynamics, public opinion, attitudes, and decision-making in the US and abroad. Ethical, legal, and other societal value systems of scientists and decision-making audiences that underlie public debates about genetic engineering, and what is known about successful models of engagement given those values will also be discussed. Finally, the workshop will delve into the science information needs of decision-makers, and potential collaborative mechanisms that facilitate access to and evaluation of scientific evidence about GE organisms for decision-making purposes. Some of the questions addressed at the workshop include:
- What values or value systems influence the attitudes of scientists and publics towards genetically engineered organisms?
- How can scientists and science policy-makers enter into dialogue with the public on issues related to genetically engineered organisms in ways that build trust?
- What is the appropriate (and realistic) role of science in informing decisions related to genetically engineered organisms?
- What types and sources of information about genetically engineered organisms are useful and credible to citizens, given their diverse value systems?
- How can scientific information about genetically engineered organisms be best presented for use by policy decision-makers?
- How can non-scientists and consumers access and evaluate scientific studies about genetically engineered organisms in real time, to better inform their decisions?
He said that the characteristics of science and technology that lend themselves to becoming politicized and post-normal are high complexity, fast bench-to-bedside transitions, and ethical, legal, and social issues that are as important as the scientific capabilities.
Scheufele explained that the PILS Roundtable took on the issue of public engagement on GMOs because of an increasing awareness among natural scientists that many emerging technologies in the life sciences, like GMOs, affect society directly. “They may create concerns. They certainly have created lots of policy debates and have influenced market dynamics,” he said. Scheufele defined public interfaces of GMOs as any connection of the science of GMOs with societal applications and political effects. He emphasized that when it comes to figuring out how to build better science–society conversations on GMOs, “we spent a lot of time winging it.” However, empirical findings of social-science research on public perceptions of science could be used to inform science–public interfaces. Hence, Scheufele outlined the goals of the workshop as investigating: findings from the behavioral and social sciences about how these interfaces work, learning how the public reacts to the different aspects of GMO technology, and discussing how to build empirically based science–public interfaces.
On Day 1, Scheufele opened Session 1 by welcoming participants, outlining the goals of the workshop, and describing a series of myths about public perceptions of science that have influenced how people communicate about GMOs. William Hallman, of Rutgers University, then discussed his research on how consumers make decisions, particularly about GMOs. Dan Kahan, of Yale University, described conditions that can erode what he called “the science communication environment” and factors that might be at play in discussions about GMOs. Finally, Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, talked about the role of policy and politics in science and about how cultural and political contexts affect the communication of science.
In Session 2, three speakers discussed knowns, unknowns, and challenges related to public
perceptions of science. Dominique Brossard, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, discussed public perceptions of GMO technologies. Stephen Palacios, of Added Value Cheskin, described market research that food industries use to evaluate public perceptions and why it matters. Food and science journalist Tamar Haspel, and independent science and health journalist, described the challenges of personal biases in science journalism and approaches to overcome them. Jason Delborne, of North Carolina State University, described approaches to public engagement in ways that include publics with diverse perceptions, including opposing perceptions, of GMOs. Session 2 concluded with a panel discussion on the role of science and scientists in public initiatives to label genetically modified foods. Panelists were Robert Goldberg, of the University of California, Los Angeles, Eric Sachs of Monsanto, Allison Snow, of Ohio State University, William Hallman, and Tamar Haspel.
On Day 2, Brooke Smith, of COMPASS, opened with information and insights gleaned from Day 1 presentations and discussions. Workshop participants then separated into three breakout groups to discuss how lessons from the workshop apply to different societal conversations about GMOs, specifically transgenic corn and the monarch butterfly, the American chestnut, and genetically modified mosquitoes. Summaries of the breakout sessions were shared and discussed in plenary session. The workshop concluded with a four-member reaction panel and a facilitated audience discussion about conceptual and practical take-homes from the workshop. The panelists were Rick Borchelt, of the Department of Energy, Helen Dillard, of the University of California, Davis, Molly Jahn, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Dan Kahan.
The workshop was attended by 90 persons, and another 126 joined via webcast. On-line participants were encouraged to ask questions and contribute to discussions via Twitter at #NASInterface. Workshop presentations and archived videos are available through the PILS Web site.2 The workshop agenda, a list of participants who attended in person, and the biographies of speakers and the workshop planning committee can be found in Appendixes A, B, and C.
This report summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place during the workshop. It is organized by major themes. Written by rapporteurs, this publication is a factual summary of the presentations and discussions at the workshop. The organizing committee took no part in the writing of the summary. The organizing committee extended invitations to a broad spectrum of individuals. This summary represents the views expressed by the individual workshop participants and so is not necessarily representative of all viewpoints. Nor do the views necessarily represent the organizing committee or the National Academy of Sciences. In accordance with the policies of National Research Council, this document does not establish any conclusions or recommendations of the National Research Council; instead, it focuses on issues and ideas presented by the speakers and workshop participants.
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