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The Biotech Future

Isaac Rabino

Scientists as Educators of the Public

Ignorance of the public is a tremendous obstacle to the acceptance of biotechnology advances. In their comments, scientists expressed great concern about the extent of this ignorance, which was illustrated by public reactions to the movie Jurassic Park, for instance. Surveys back up this picture: For example, in a 1993 New Jersey telephone survey of the public, more than half of the respondents (including medical practitioners and food growers) said they had heard little or nothing about genetic engineering, whereas 80 percent believed they had adequate understanding of general science and technology (Hallman 1996).

Some scientists view the public not just as uninformed but as uninformable. But the experience of some of my respondents contradicts this: They describe the "everyday public" as eager to learn, understand and evaluate, and quickly coming up with the same questions the scientists ask of their research. Even in the views of many scientists working in the field, then, the prospect of educating the public to improve decision-making on biotechnology is not at all hopeless.

Clearly the scientific community itself must play an educational role if accurate information about DNA technologies is to be conveyed. But are scientists not viewed as biased by the public, so that efforts at education or scientific involvement in public debate would be a waste? (In fact, some respondents worried about the public's perception of scientists as devious, smart and evil!) Interestingly, this does not seem to be the case. The New Jersey survey mentioned above showed that university scientists, at least, are seen by the public as the most reliable source of information (ahead of environmentalist groups and far ahead of government and biotech companies) about biotechnology.

In other words, public-attitude surveys do not suggest that scientists should be reluctant to engage in public debate over applications of biotechnology. Many of the ethical and social issues obviously are outside the realm of science and engineering and must be addressed with the help of specialists from other fields, including philosophy, sociology, political science, law and theology. Nonetheless, the impetus to resolve them has to come from the scientists who are most interested in pursuing advanced research.

A comment from one investigator expresses well the enthusiasm that should go into communication with the public: "Perhaps if more people understood how rudimentary medicine is today and the potential gene therapy has to overcome so many problems, there would be more public enthusiasm. One day the physicians will cringe at the thought of having to prescribe daily insulin injections for diabetes or chemotherapeutics for some cancers. The public should know this!"

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