Public Outreach

frog has left

We participated in a science fair organized by the biocluster Genopole on October the 13th. This event called “La Fête de la Science” is lead in a shopping center so that people can and get in touch with today’s scientific practices. It was the occasion for the team to see the difficulty of such exercise. We mostly discussed about the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs and questions concerning the theory of evolution. More fundamental and complex work such as our synthetic orthogonal hormonal system only interested people already in close contact with biology. Such events are getting quite common and important in our societies, and nearly every team in iGEM do public outreach. Many believe that if science gets closer to society numerous controversies will be avoided. It is often stated that the public doesn’t accept GMOs, nanotechnologies or nuclear energy because of some irrationality or some lack of knowledge. Thus many social apparatus are created, such as public understanding of science, public acceptability or consensus building forum, in order to help solving those issues.

Our experience triggered some questions among the team… it is not obvious at all that coming to the public in order to explain what is science should be meant to make them accept controversial technologies. Furthermore stating that knowing what a GMO will imply that it's acceptance, might be quite hasty. In 2001 Claire Marris published a study in EMBO reports entitled “Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths” [1].

Claire Marris exposes six myths, six preconceptions of public expectations and reluctances:

  • First, the public is not "for" or "against" GMOs. This is a case by case debates mainly conditionned by the intitutional context in which the GMOs are developed.

  • Second, the public is "irrational and unscientific"... According to this argument, most of people do not accept GMOs because of their lack of scientific knowledge. Though most of people do not know the technical processes of genetic mofication, many studies show that these debates wouldn't be solved by a technical knowledge. Education is less problematic than political stakes (See Martin and Tait 1992 and Gaskell et al. 1998).

  • Third, people are obsessed with the idea that GMOs are "unnatural". This argument supposes that people does not understand that GMO are the achievement of a logical process, which started 10000 years ago with crops and animal selection. However, as well as the "playing god" accusation, the "unnatural" statement refer to a wide range of industrialisation processes that have deep and unprevisible impacts because of their large scale.

  • Fourth, agricultural versus medical use of GMOs. It is often argued that people prefer medical use of GMOs because they see the direct value of the modification which is not the case with agricultural GMOs. However the participants of the study showed that the preference of medical use of GMOs was related to a better confidence in the medical practice. This confidence is related to the exchanges with doctor and the precision of the treatment. At the opposite, agricultural GMOs seem quite far from the consommateur and apply without regard to the soil or the environment.

  • Fifth, BSE (Brain Spongiform Encephalopathy) amalgam. This amalgam clearly exists but not from a technical or an ontological point of view. The proximity of the defiance concerns various insatisfactions towards the institutions in charge when such kind of a problem arises. "From their own personal experience about human faillibility and previous instutional failures, they felt that corruption, fraud and lack of ressources is nothing unusual within control authorities."

  • Sixth, demand for zero risks. To this idea, participants mostly reacted by saying that experts promising zero risks are quite disturbing.

What result from this study is that the main reluctance of the public do not concern directly the products of science or technology. People rather insist on their mistrust towards the firms doing business with these products. Economic pressure plus some lack of transparency concerning the toxicity tests lead to numerous scandals. Thus public acceptability operations may miss a more important issue, the regulation of biotechnologies. As the development of synthetic biology is in close relation with its applications and the business that can be made of its products, it is quite uncertain that doing public acceptance will really help neutralize some forthcoming reluctances.

[1] Marris C. 2001, "Public View on GMOs: Deconstructing the myths", EMBO Reports Vol. 21 no. 7 p545-548