Transgenic public relations: Why is it so hard?

Would public suspicion of genetically modified organisms be alleviated if scientists received better media training?

Published September 11, 2007 11:11PM (EDT)

If only scientists had better media training. Then maybe the "public" wouldn't be so distrustful of agricultural biotechnology. This lament doesn't appear just once in the special September issue of Biotechnology Journal, "Talking Biotech with the Public." It pops up again and again, a tragic leitmotif. If scientists could more effectively communicate the rational reasons why there is nothing to fear from biotech, then there would be no resistance to the further spread of genetically modified organisms. But alas, science is hard, the public is limited in its ability to comprehend, and agenda-driven activists are always muddying the waters.

Science is hard. Most people aren't going to understand the ins and outs of recombinant DNA technology. And there is certainly no shortage of disingenuous activists, of all stripes and colors, doing their best to spin every data point in their own chosen direction.

But if those scientists who are furrowing their brow at public intransigence on GMOs want to better understand such irrational belligerence, a close reading of the very first editorial in this special issue offers a big honking clue.

In "Talking with the public: challenging the public scare," Dr. Kristina Sinemus, the CEO of Genius, a German public relations consultancy with "many years of experience in communicating controversial aspects of technology," writes:

Especially in the light of economic prosperity, which is highly dependent on science, hostility to innovation is counterproductive. The question is not whether societies want new technologies -- there is simply an economic requirement for them. This in turn means that public understanding and a thorough exchange with scientists need to be methodically enforced.

Now, there may well be an irresistible mandate for new technological innovation if nine billion people are going to survive on this planet. But if you're wondering why, as one commentator after another notes in "Talking Biotech with the Public," popular faith in the pronouncements of scientists appears to be on the decline, then look no further than this declaration of "economic" requirements.

Time and again, the authors in Biotechnology Journal divide the world into a drama with just two actors: Science and The Public. (One even makes an even more derisory distinction, suggesting that the debate is between "modernists" who believe in progress, and postmodernists who don't even believe in truth.) But there's a third player: Capital.

For your average muckraking journalist, it's a no-brainer. One's starting point is to always be skeptical of assurances coming from anyone who has a financial stake in the proposition at hand. In a world in which the corporate capture of regulatory agencies is routine, top academic scientists enjoy a steady stream of income from corporate entities, and huge multinational corporations require the constant introduction and distribution of new products to generate the profits demanded by their shareholders, you don't have to be a Marxist to be suspicious. You need merely be prudent.

The essays in Biotechnology Journal do not completely ignore these factors, although most do their best to belittle them. One writer notes that opponents of GMOs cleverly take advantage of the "market-skeptical resentments of the middle class." (To which I might respond, if only! The most formidable offering, -- indeed, the only contribution that need be taken seriously -- University of California at Riverside's Alan McHughen's "Public perceptions of technology," notes in passing that 34 percent of the online respondents to a U.K. television story on a genetically modified safflower strain designed to produce pharmaceutical grade insulin argued that "agricultural biotech is primarily driven by corporate greed." But McHughen's essay also betrays the fundamental tone-deafness that so many scientists display when the public expresses doubt that they're receiving the straight dope.

Biotechnology is not new in this regard, everything from automobiles to barbecues warrants appropriate experts working in the public interest to assure safety, and typically these experts are employed by government agencies.

But where do we find such experts? Industry certainly employs scientists with appropriate expertise. But industry scientists are usually prohibited from public outreach -- that’s the job of the sales force. And when they do engage in public education, their presentation must conform to the company line. In addition, activists are sure to point out that industry people cannot be trusted, as their loyalty is to the shareholders, not the public. Similarly, government employs many capable scientists and their loyalty should be to the taxpayers. But, again, activists quickly criticize and challenge the loyalty of government scientists, as public service experts exchange jobs with industry on a regular basis, the "revolving door policy with big industry," thus undermining their allegiance and credibility. The other major source of scientists with appropriate expertise is academia, as both public and private universities engage in broad research into the issues. But here again, the credibility and loyalty of even public academics is challenged by some activists who point out that many academic research programs are funded by industry, and question whether the academic scientist can be truly objective if their research program is tied to the industry in question.

What's so astonishing about this quote is that, in context, McHughen is clearly bemoaning how unfair these "activists" are being, bandying about their accusations of monetarily influenced bias. Whereas I look at that paragraph, and say, yes, exactly, you've hit the problem on his head! How can you possibly expect me to trust the words of men and women who stand to profit from the commercial deployment of the products that they are telling me are safe?

And you call me irrational?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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