Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): An Update from the Field

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February 3rd, 2015

How can science communicators foster public engagement with science when it involves emerging and complex technologies? This question is particularly relevant in light of a recent report from the Pew Research Center that reveals a significant opinion gap between scientists and the general public on many issues ranging from genetically modified foods to climate change. The Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences (PILS) at the National Academy of Sciences held a workshop in January entitled “When Science and Citizens Connect: Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).” The two-day event used the topic of GMOs as a lens through which to explore different models of science engagement, keeping in mind the perspectives of both social and natural scientists. The first day consisted of presentations that provided insight into what is currently known about science engagement and how science is perceived by the public, followed by a panel that applied that data to the the topic of whether foods containing GMO ingredients should be required to have mandatory labels. The second day was structured around breakout groups where participants examined engagement surrounding issues regarding GMOs, including the impact of transgenic corn on monarch butterflies, the ability to bring back the American chestnut from extinction, and the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat disease.

The Sciences of Engagement, Decisions, and Politics

Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin, Madison opened the discussion by addressing some popular but false assumptions that shape the landscape of science communication, challenging both the deficit model and the idea that there’s a lack of public trust in science. Instead, claims Scheufele, the public interface problem is an issue of framing: frames help audiences to characterize unfamiliar information by providing context, and once a frame is established, it is difficult to change. William Hallman, a psychologist from Rutgers University, offered his perspective on how consumers make decisions (in short, “It’s complicated”). He discussed different factors that influence decision-making, such as people’s worldview, social norms, and the social desirability tied to different opinions. His point was that a consumer’s decision isn’t irrational, but it is based on a multitude of complex factors, and everyone comes to an issue with a different combination of knowledge and values. In the next presentation, Dan Kahan asked whether the issue of GMOs are bad for science communication (and vice versa). He discussed the public reaction to climate change, a case where compelling and widely available scientific evidence has failed to shift public opinion. Kahan points to a study which shows that the more people learn about the science behind climate change, the more their opinions became polarized along political lines. This issue is what he calls a “polluted science communication environment” in which cultural norms trump reason. Kahan qualified, however, that this type of situation is not the norm and that for most science communication issues opinions are not strongly tied to cultural identity. Roger Pielke from the University of Colorado builds on Scheufele’s point regarding frames, stating that all science communication is political, regardless of intent. He takes a neutral view on the politicization of science, which he defines as “the use of systemic pursuit of knowledge to negotiate and make decisions.” As such, Pielke outlines four modes of engagement for scientists who involve themselves with policy: the “pure scientist,” the issue advocate, the science arbiter, and the honest broker of policy alternatives. These roles can each be useful depending on context.

Science and Perceptions: Knowns, Unknowns, and Challenges

Dominique Brossard’s presentation tied the earlier discussions about science communication to the way the public perceives the issue of genetically engineered crops. She characterized the issue as multidimensional, i.e. related to more than just food safety and the environment, but also regulatory issues, distribution of risks and benefits, international trade, consumer choice, impact on rural communities, and more. Brossard posits that knowledge only accounts for a small variance in public attitudes, highlighting the importance of understanding frames and the cultural context of information. From a market research perspective, Stephen Palacios discussed media perceptions of GMOs and how those opinions influence businesses who are driven by consumer interest, whether or not that interest is backed by science. From the perspective of science journalism, Tamar Haspel presented the idea that no one is impartial, returning again to the theme of confirmation bias, stating that you can use science to justify multiple opinions. She recommended small steps toward better communication, including recognizing one’s own bias, vetting sources, acknowledging both risks and benefits, listening to opposing ideas, and appealing to people’s values. Jason Delborne from North Carolina State University shared a participatory model of science engagement as an alternative to the deficit model. He believes that science engagement should be a two-way dialogue in which both lay persons and scientists communicate while taking on the intellectual risk of being moved. Delborne discussed a process that uses a synthesis of facts and values to have a constructive dialog about how to solve real-world problems.

Further Applications of Lessons Learned

One of the biggest themes that arose in this workshop was the difference between persuasion and engagement. Communicating in a top-down manner strengthens confirmation bias, thus science communicators should aim instead to foster a two-way dialogue that acknowledges the perspectives of both scientists and lay people. Although the workshop’s discussion was centered around GMOs, the topic of public engagement with science addressed is wide-reaching, and the science communication strategies discussed in the meeting transcend and crosscut individual disciplines. The conclusion of most of the presenters seemed to be while engaging publics around the science of climate change required some particular considerations, the issue of GMOs didn’t (with a cautionary “yet”). Overall, the informed, thoughtful science communication strategies discussed here can be applied to any complex or emerging topic, for example, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and synthetic biology.

Related Resources

The Convergence of Informal Science Education and Science Communication

Evidence Wiki Article on Public Engagement

Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science

The National Academy of Sciences Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication

Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education

Science Centers and Public Participation: Methods, Strategies, and Barriers

What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions

Workshop Information, Including Readings, Participant Bios, and Presentations