Darren Hughes on lessons from the Rothamsted wheat trial.
The experiment at Rothamsted Research on wheat, genetically engineered to be more environmentally friendly, hit the headlines this spring. From the moment we were first given approval to conduct the field trial back in September 2011 we knew that there would be some PR work to do, given that GM had proved controversial in the past, but none of us anticipated what followed.Our scientists took their expertise in the natural chemistry of plant–insect interactions and put it together with cutting edge molecular biology to create a wheat plant capable of emitting a ‘smell’ to prevent aphid attack and potentially reduce insecticide use. Whist an incredibly clever piece of science, the fact that we were using GM as a technique to make this experimental wheat plant offended a small group of protestors who vowed to ‘decontaminate’, or destroy, our work.
Long before the protest group demanded that the experiment be stopped, we worked with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) on an open and informative approach to our public engagement. We spoke with many individuals and groups, as well as developing information leaflets and a dedicated website. We also directly briefed journalists at a national level to dispel some of the myths emerging about our trial, as well as proactively communicating our key messages.
But of course, with this proactive stance came more publicity and with increased publicity came an increased threat from the protest group to damage our experiment. My scientific colleagues became increasingly upset by these illegal threats to destroy years of hard and important work. With our initial advances and communications to the protest group being ignored, the Rothamsted scientists ventured into unchartered territory, choosing to take their public engagement to another level by appealing directly to the protest group through an open letter and YouTube video.
Supported by the Science Media Centre, we took part in a tidal wave of radio, TV, newspaper and internet interview requests. But my scientific colleagues were aware that this form of communication was one-way and public engagement, however you chose to define it, should be a two-way process requiring you to both listen and teach. So, in addition to the on-going face-to-face work with local groups opposed to the trial, we used Twitter, online Q&A, forums and comments pages to interact and have conversations with the public directly. Most of these interactions were with those either neutral or opposed to GM technologies.
Power of new media
It has been a learning-by-doing experience for us all. We are scientists after all, not PR professionals. As the trial is ongoing, it is difficult at this stage to reflect on the lessons learned fully, but it has certainly taught us the importance of being proactive and interactive with the public on contentious issues and we hope this may encourage other more tentative scientists to do likewise. It has also taught us the power of using new media for more interactive public discussion.
In saying this, people should be aware that this approach is enormously time consuming and is physically and emotionally very draining and inevitably detracts from our day job of delivering the science. In our case, the support we have received from individuals within the scientific community and members of the public makes a massive difference, for example the online petition which amassed 6000 signatures of support in four weeks. For this we owe enormous thanks to Sense about Science.
When the trial is finished in summer 2013, we will be able to reflect fully on our approach. Whilst we remain open to feedback, one thing is for sure – we will stick to our transparent, interactive two-way approach to public engagement.