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Safe in the Ivory Tower?

ASPP Committee on Public Affairs
By Peggy G. Lemaux

I was stunned by the message! Yes, I had read that European field tests of genetically engineered plants by large multinational companies were being destroyed by protesters and that farmers' fields in India containing genetically engineered crops were being burned to the ground. But now it had happened in my own backyard! I replayed the message on my answering machine. The disturbed voice of a student repeated that someone had entered fenced, university property where his experimental plants were growing and used machetes to cut his corn plants to the ground.

The perpetrators, or "decontaminators" as referred to themselves, were either unaware or didn't care that the plants they destroyed were not genetically engineered. Although a small percentage of the plants at this university field station were genetically engineered, a part of a National Science Foundation-funded study, the plants that were destroyed had been created by classical breeding. They were an integral part of the graduate student's doctoral thesis and now his research would be delayed an entire year because of the destruction!

Can we as scientists continue to stand by and watch this happen? Can we let misunderstandings about modern plant biology and biotechnology go unchallenged, resulting in painful interruptions in the training of tomorrow's scientists or stopping our own pursuits of fundamental scientific discovery?

Over the years scientists have kept a low public profile, conducting their research within the confines of their laboratories in universities, publishing their research results and rarely communicating with the general public about the implications of their work or its potential risks or rewards to society. Utilizing funding from federal grants was sufficient for most scientists to make a living and to train the next generation of scientists without having to justify or explain what they were doing to the public.

For decades, there was little to draw scientists out to engage in public discussions about their work. Biotechnology, I believe, is changing that situation. Few controversies in biology have caused this level of public debate. In the late 1980's to mid-1990's in the U.S., we saw chefs refusing to serve genetically engineered foods in their restaurants, scientists parading in moon suits in fields containing genetically engineered organisms and parents dumping milk from BGH-treated cows into the streets. During this period here in the U.S., most scientists remained comfortably in their laboratories while these events played out. Those who chose to venture out into the public arena were often misquoted or misrepresented, only serving to drive them further into their "ivory towers".

Do we have the luxury of continuing to stay cloistered within our laboratories? Of course, as scientists, we have a choice but the consequences of that choice are clear. We can stay on the sidelines and hope that someone else takes on the responsibility of defending this discipline. The potential consequence of that choice might be that we lose our ability to engage in scientific discovery using the new genetic tools we helped to develop. Or we can become actively involved, participating in dialogue with public opinion makers, consumers and the press on the technology's risks and benefits in an informed and professional manner. The choice is ours.

Deciding to do the latter is not a trivial commitment. Interacting with the public often requires more skills (and certainly different ones) than we, as scientists, use in our own research. Communicating effectively requires sensitivity to the audience, knowledge of the topic and skill in sculpting answers that are scientifically accurate, lead to minimal misinterpretation and address the concerns of the public. Deciding to become an active player in public dialogue requires a dedication to learning the skills necessary to do so effectively (see below).

If we, as scientists recognize the importance of communicating with the public and make it a priority, I believe that we can make a difference in the debate. If we chose not to engage in this important exercise, we must accept the consequences of remaining in our ivory towers!

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Peggy G. Lemaux, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California Berkeley, CA 94720

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Note from ASPP Public Affairs Office:

ASPP is taking an active role in helping scientists enter the dialogue. The ASPP Public Affairs office and Committee on Public Affairs can provide background information for use in communicating with the media and the public on plant science issues, such as the relative benefits and risks of plant biotechnology. To prepare a piece for an editorial page, we can provide advice to ASPP members on procedures to follow to get a letter to the editor published or to arrange a meeting with an editorial board (see ASPP Public Affairs web page at: http://www.aspb.org/publicaffairs/). For examples of the potential benefits and risks of plant biotechnology, see the issues section containing plant research briefing papers on the Public Affairs web page (http://www.aspb.org/publicaffairs/agricultural/). For guidance in preparing a "listener friendly" talk on general issues related to agricultural biotechnology, see Peggy Lemaux's Generic Talk and Slide Set on her web site, at http://ucbiotech.org/resources/index.html.

It is best to proceed with letters to the editor, interviews with the media and meetings with editorial boards at which you provide the content of the presentation. You do not need to feel compelled to invite members of the "opposition," since this often is more confusing to the audience than it is enlightening. If you want assistance in these ventures from the Committee on Public Affairs or the ASPP Public Affairs office, please contact ASPP headquarters. Remember, if your local newspapers don't hear about the benefits of modern plant research from you, they may only hear one-sided accounts about the risks of the research you do from anti-biotech activists.

For a compelling reason to enter the fray, just look at what activists have done to the attitudes of the public toward genetic engineering in Europe. Activists have even demanded GM-free clothing be made available in Britain (Nature Biotechnology 17:939,.1999)! Imagine what this attitude could do in the U.S. to future support decisions for federal research money and your ability to use these tools in productive ways!

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Brian Hyps, Public Affairs Director, American Society of Plant Physiologists, 15501 Monona Drive, Rockville, MD 20855, 301-251-0560 (phone), 301-309-9196 (fax), bhyps@aspp.org