April 22, 2024

‘Public involvement’ needed to pave way for controversial science, say researchers

Voters need to be softened up

In October of 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR, which has transformed the world of genetic engineering.

CRISPR has been used to fight lung cancer and correct the mutation responsible for sickle cell anaemia in stem cells. But the technology was also used by a Chinese scientist to secretly and illegally edit the genomes of twin girls — the first-ever heritable mutation of the human germline made with genetic engineering.

“We've moved away from an era of science where we understood the risks that came with new technology and where decision stakes were fairly low,” says Dietram Scheufele, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Today, Scheufele and his colleagues say, we're in a world where new technologies have very immediate and sometimes unpredictable but significant impacts on society. In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers argue that advanced tech like CRISPR demands more public engagement if it is to benefit the public without crossing ethical lines.

The authors say that being transparent about public engagement goals and using evidence from social science can help facilitate difficult conversations. Effective public engagement, in turn, lays the groundwork for public support – and presumably, funding.

Since 2012, when the CRISPR system was first described, scientists have understood this problem. But many of them wanted to avoid rehashing the controversies surrounding genetically modified organisms, which have been harshly criticized as unnatural and unnecessary by some activists despite broad scientific support for their use.

Yet, Krause says, some CRISPR scientists began by repeating the public engagement methods employed for GMOs, which “assumes that people just need more knowledge, more of an ability to understand the science.” Instead, Krause adds: “Solutions focused on tailoring communications to people's values would make more sense.”

This values-based public engagement strategy is supported by social science research into how people form and change their opinions around new technologies. Some public engagement methods engage value systems, and encourage thoughtful conversation, more than others.

For example, what researchers term “public involvement” and “public collaboration” are methods of two-way communication involving the joint exchange of information and values and the identification and design of science-based decisions that adhere to those values. That contrasts with “public communication,” which focuses only on the dissemination of scientific information.

Collaborative approaches could help scientists widen the representation of voices in debates to groups who are often overlooked, such as people with disabilities or racial minorities.

“As the scientific community, we don't have a long track record of effective engagement mechanism with these communities,” says Scheufele. This failure to reach broader groups stems in part from the low participation rates of most science engagement events, which also attract highly selective audiences.

Another challenge is rewarding scientists for public engagement. “There's very little incentive in academia to do this kind of work,” says Scheufele. Scheufele and his colleagues have a grant from the National Science Foundation to research how to depolarize debates around CRISPR. Previous studies suggest that making people accountable for their positions helps them think more critically about their underlying reasoning. And when social scientists emphasize the complexity inherent in people's values, it helps people consider controversial issues with more nuance.

Michael Cook is the editor of BioEdge   

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