Behind the Scenes: Communicating the Science of GMOs

Back in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a study on opinion differences between scientists and the public. Basically, they wanted to get a sense for scientists’ views on society compared to the broader public. Where did the opinions radically differ?

Coming in at number one, with the dubious distinction of largest discrepancy between scientists’ opinions and the public’s, was the issue of GMOs. Namely, is it safe to eat GMOs? Of the scientists polled (all members of AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific society), 88% indicated that GMOs were safe to eat. Amongst the public, only 37% agreed. There was a 51 point difference between how scientists perceived the safety of GMOs in contrast with the public (more details here if you’re curious).

To me, this was an indication that the science of GMOs wasn’t being communicated well. If scientists held such a radically different viewpoint as the rest of society, something was getting lost in between. I started to do some research and writing about how GMOs were being communicated. It really started to draw me in (as most contentious issues do).

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to do something about it. I spearheaded a project called The Science of GMOs out of the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. This wasn’t going to be a website for or against GMOs. It was just going to be the science, presented in a way that the public can understand (not masked in a quagmire of technical jargon), and people could make up their own minds once equipped with the facts. Also, it was going to answer what people wanted to know, not what scientists felt like talking about.

I was so happy (yes! a contentious issue! let me talk about it!). With Purdue resources (scientists, a filming studio, a graphic designer, a web designer, a keen-eyed editor, smart colleagues), we had the means and a beautiful blank slate of space to fill in with information. Over the course of a year, we nailed down eight questions and wrote up answers, created infographics and filmed interviews. They are:

  1. What are GMOs?
  2. Why do we use GMOs?
  3. Do GMOs harm health?
  4. How do GMOs affect insects?
  5. How does the regulation process work?
  6. What GMOs and weeds?
  7. What’s the story on GMOs and labeling?
  8. What is gene editing?

The website isn’t, of course, finished. Something like this is never finished. Science advances, more questions arise, policy changes and new issues come to the forefront. But it’s as comprehensive as we can get it for now, and I’m not sure how much further it will go.

A couple things excite me about this particular project. First off, it’s a connection between science and the public. This isn’t nearly as easy to create as it seems, but it’s nearly always more important than we think. It breaks down the barriers, particularly in the interviews, where the scientists and researchers are just being themselves and we can see them for who they are (nothing was scripted, and I know, because I was the one conducting the interviews). Second, it uses different media to capture a complex subject: visuals, video and text. Depending on how much time a person has, or how they like to process information, there it is.

Finally, I like it because it tackles something hard straight on. I’m not of the mindset that things get better when they’re swept under the rug. I’ve never seen that work. The site just lays it out there. Here are GMOs. Here’s the science. Now you go decide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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