Genomics: Perceptions of the Public and the Press

It is no secret that the discoveries of the science of biotechnology are, in the words of Eric Lander at a GeneMedia forum ,Director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, “transforming events.”

They challenge the notion of race, so deeply imbedded in our culture. They will change the nature of the fight against disease. They have dramatically changed agriculture, have raised the prospect of increased longevity and of feeding the poor with more nutritious food.

Just as with Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species in 1859 and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the genetic revolution has and will change our view of ourselves and the world.

As always, however, with revolutionary advances come significant and legitimate social, ethical, and political concerns. All of these concerns are real, and deeply felt by a segment of the population.


This feature is based on a presentation to the Second Annual National Conference on the Future of Genomics, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals in Medical Care.

At its heart, however, I think that the concern and the fuss are over some fundamental issues:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is nature?
  • What is our place in the world?
  • Is globalization good for us?
  • Is science moving too fast, without adequate controls?
  • Who are the winners, and who are the losers?

It sometimes seems to those of us in the biotechnology business – either in the production of the science or its utilization – that everyone must know everything about it. It has been headlined everywhere, it has been on television, and numerous books have been written.

It turns out that the group that defines itself as ignorant or poorly informed about the issue is a large one. The Los Angeles Times, for example, tells us that a scant 14 percent of the population pays close attention to these fundamental social, ethical and political issues in genetics.

Generally, the public is supportive of genetic science, as it is supportive of science in general. Science Indicators, the comprehensive survey published every other year by the National Science Foundation, for example, finds that, “in 1999, 44 percent of those interviewed agreed that the benefits [of genetic engineering] outweigh the harms,” compared to 38 percent who felt the reverse. A Harris Poll, however, reported that “a clear, but not huge, 48 to 38 percent plurality believes that the risks of GM crops and foods outweigh the benefits.”

We face a very interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Americans, along with others in the developed world, continue to have faith in science and technology to improve their lives.

On the other hand, “the number of people who feel either well informed or moderately well informed about science and technology is fairly low.” Seventeen percent felt themselves well informed, while 30 percent felt they were poorly informed. And perhaps most important: “About three quarters of Americans lack a clear understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry.”

It adds up to a troubling picture. While Americans generally have a positive view of science and technology, it may be no more than skin deep.

Let us now turn to the future. What does this mean? Are we content with this relatively low level of public understanding, either of science in general or genomics in particular? If not, what should we do about it?

Anytime one is on an exponential growth curve, the terrain behind you looks flat and that in front of you seems a steep hill. As Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus said recently, the “race” to complete the human genome is really a race to the starting line.

If the science has gotten a little ahead of the politics thus far, in the future it is going to be racing ahead of the politics and of public understanding, unless we do something about it. A public that does not understand something is apt to reject it.

We must, therefore, do something about the relatively low understanding of the public of the genetic revolution. .

Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, recently said about reporting in the sciences: “Science journalism has a problem, and it is a problem that must be solved by scientists.”

According to Dean, the science writer often has to write many stories on very different subjects, each one of which has complications which must be dealt with. There is no way the writers can get it right all the time, without significant effort on the part of the scientific community itself.

The public, while generally supportive of science in general and genomics in particular, is nervous about it and does not know enough to allay those fears. It is also clear that whatever issues are there today, there will be ten times more tomorrow, ten times that the day after tomorrow, and so forth.

It is essential, therefore, that there be a marriage between the science and media communities to bring this deeper understanding about. Perhaps marriage is too strong a word. I wish to convey the notion of a strong bond and working relationship, one that emphasizes the skill of both parties – the scientist as the producer of new knowledge, and the journalist as the translator to the public whom they study – to bring about another revolution, the revolution in the understanding of this science.

The author is President of the Gene Media Forum, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

References:

  • Avins, Mimi. “Genome Map Success: Much Yet to Discover.” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2000, page E-1.
  • Kanigel, Robert. “The Perils of Popularizing Science. Science Writer, Summer 2000.

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