In June, Rothamsted Research announced the results of a field trial of wheat they had genetically engineered to emit an insect alarm pheromone. The researchers hoped the engineered wheat would repel aphids without the need for spraying. Despite success in preliminary lab studies, the results were negative. But the way the researchers went about communicating their results was hugely positive: they held a press briefing.
The fact that Rothamsted scientists were proactive in talking about what they had learned from disappointing results should be no surprise to anyone who has followed this research project. Before the experiment began, the team held another press briefing to explain to reporters how the trial would work. When a protest group under the name Take the Flour Back threatened to rip up the experimental crop, Rothamsted wrote an open letter entreating the protestors not to destroy research. They also produced a YouTube video appeal and offered to run a public event at a neutral venue to discuss the protestors’ fears.
In the face of widespread public support for Rothamsted the ‘decontamination’ never took place (though the whole affair added around $3m dollars to the cost of the trial). From beginning to end, the way the researchers took their work to the media and to the wider public resulted in their science getting a fair hearing, despite headline grabbing controversy. As an unintended consequence of all the media attention, the scientific process – from lab results to field trial to final results – was illustrated beautifully before the public eye.
It is this spirit of proactive engagement that underpins a new project recently launched in the U.S., the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS). We are a small DC-based nonprofit whose aim is to increase the access journalists, commentators, policymakers and the public have to scientific expertise on the latest news on genetics and biotechnology.
We identify research stories that are likely to grab journalists’ attention and seek out scientists who can offer their expert take on the importance of new findings. We also react to breaking news stories, like Chipotle’s announcement of going ‘GMO-free’ or the news that human embryos had been genome edited for the first time. All the comments we gather are sent to the inboxes of journalists as a resource for reporting, either as background information, a source for good contacts, or for direct quoting.
(See this SciLogs blogpost for a neat explanation of how the process works).
We also take direct inquiries from journalists, policy professionals, and anyone engaging in public debates around genetics who needs an expert. By making researchers more visible to people shaping public information about science, we help debates to be founded on robust, evidence-based information. We aim to make it easy for scientists to engage without having to take too much time from busy research and teaching schedules.
These are exciting days for science communication. There are hundreds of ways to communicate about science, and hundreds of ways for people to consume science news. Despite this, mainstream media outlets are still the dominant source of scientific information for Americans, so engaging with journalists is still an extremely effective way to get solid, robust information to the masses.
The team at Rothamsted didn’t do it all by themselves. They had a great media team around them, and the support of organizations like the UK’s Science Media Centre and Sense About Science to help them communicate effectively. As a former staff member at the UK Science Media Centre, I hope GENeS will be able to help US researchers willing to put themselves in the public eye and stand up for evidence-based thinking.
GENeS is funded by the trusts and foundations who support the Genetic Literacy Project, by the UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, and by the UC Office of the President Global Food Initiative. If you are interested in being part of the GENeS expert database, or want to receive GENeS mailings, please get in touch at [email protected] or (202) 833-4613.