By Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive, British Science Association

In our modern world, changes in social norms can be profound and rapid. Last year, who would have guessed that 'single-use' would be named Collins Dictionary word of 2018?(1)

But when the BBC’s landmark series Blue Planet II aired at the end of last year, it seemed to have a profound effect on the public’s attitudes to single-use plastic. In the 12 months that have followed, there has been a swell in public support for a reduction in plastic use as well as numerous campaigns and stories on recycling, reusable cups, and drinking water stations.

Even so, we still produce and use plastic in almost every part of our lives; it’s found in an abundance of items, including food packaging, toys, beauty products, clothes, and even things you wouldn’t expect, like tea bags.

But here’s the problem – plastic is durable, versatile and cheap to produce. These properties are responsible for the detrimental and devastating environmental impacts we’re seeing, but they were once what made plastic so popular and sought after. Developed during the Industrial Revolution, it was classed as a wonder material. Its use exploded during the 1940s and 50s with the rise of mass production and a change in our lifestyles, where convenience took priority.

Because of its copious use, our throw-away culture and the vast amount of time it takes to degrade, plastic is polluting our rivers, oceans and countryside on a global scale, with consequences for us all. Some researchers suggest that by 2050 there could even be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.(2) But we’ve known about plastic’s negative effects for a long time, so why has the public perception shifted in such a noticeable way this time?

Plastic is in an abundance of items - with a devastating impact on the environment

If you compare these two narratives: the mid-century vs. the past year, it’s two completely opposing stories. Our change in attitude to plastics is changing the way we live, shop and eat. In a matter of months, governments have brought in new laws, companies have altered entire manufacturing processes, and organisations have overhauled their business models.

It’s not just peripheral groups driving the narrative anymore; instead, it’s coming from a large proportion of the public. We may suggest that Blue Planet II is responsible for this seemingly overnight shift in public attitudes, but the real reason is surely much more complex than that – and in reality, this shift was happening for a long time before Blue Planet II hit our screens.

What has been so fascinating about this behavioural shift is the relationship between society, science, business and policy – in this debate, they have been inextricably linked, feeding into one another and driving change together.

I think what has happened in the past year with single-use plastics could serve as a useful lesson for the future. What might the word of the year be in 2019? New technologies are being developed all the time. We’re now living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where artificial intelligence (AI) is pervading our lives and gene editing looks to follow suit. These technologies are promising to change the world for the better, but how can businesses, policy-makers and scientists ensure products of innovation are fit for purpose when societal, environmental and cultural expectations alter so rapidly?

AI is booming. A decade ago, intelligent machines only appeared in science fiction. Now AI is used in all sorts of ways, from predicting the stock exchange, to diagnosing illnesses, and helping us discover new books and music. Professor Jim Al-Khalili said during his recent Presidential Address at the British Science Festival: “the most important conversation of our generation is about the future of AI… it will dominate and dictate how we manage many pressing issues of our time”.

BSA President Jim Al-Khalili has said the most important conversation of our generation is about the future of AI

Gene editing is seeing a similar trajectory. Although genetic engineering has been around since the 70s and was initially promising, the technology was ultimately too inefficient and difficult to apply in the lab and clinic. However, with the invention of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique just a few years ago, things have quickly changed. CRISPR-Cas9 is easy to use, cheap and incredibly versatile (sound familiar?), being described as “software for the genome”. Since its invention, DNA has already been altered in plants and animals, such as mice and monkeys, and scientists have shown that it can also be done in human cells and embryos.

It’s predicted that the clinical applications of this technology could be realised in just 10 years. (3) It has the potential to correct Huntington’s disease and sickle cell anaemia, simply by removing the faulty genes. But it could also allow enhancement, giving people stronger bones, less susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, or a different eye colour – what we would call: “designer humans”. You see where this could lead.

Over half of people are in favour of genetic engineering, but this could change.(4) It seems that public opinion is currently divided because the ethical implications are huge. Some view these innovations with the same hope and positivity that we did with plastic. AI machines could look after our elderly relatives or detect cancers better than any doctor could. But are there problems down the road that we cannot yet envision? On the other side, some people approach these technologies with fear and mistrust. Think: Terminator-style robots and designer babies. Whatever lies down the road, how can we better prepare for the advancements and changes that they will bring to our society?

In the current political climate, we must acknowledge the two polarised viewpoints that surround AI and gene-editing. The things driving the narrative are complicated and full of nuance. Public perception is shaped by lobby groups, the media, spokespeople and celebrities, workers, governments, businesses – the list goes on.

Since the Industrial Revolution, people have worried about new technologies taking away their jobs. When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published, people began to fear scientists that are “playing God”. Adding to the mix are the varying levels of regulation between different countries. Some are perceived to heavily underregulate while others have too much “red tape”, so while one country could take pause on a technology to consider the ethical implications, another may be steaming ahead regardless. China, for example, have been using CRISPR on human subjects since 2015,(5) whereas here in the UK, CRISPR trials in humans have been slow to gain legal approval(6) There are also differences in cultures to consider. In Japan, AI is viewed more favourably due to the Shinto tradition, where they believe everything in the Universe, even robots, has a spirit. Whereas in the UK, we are wary and more suspicious of it.(7)

So, what can we do in our current positions? Having these conversations now is vital, and it’s right that we involve the expertise of different technical and cultural spheres. These technologies, like plastics, have the power to change the relationship between citizens, businesses and policy makers, and we need government policy to reflect societal views.

As discussed at the previous two Huxley Summits, “the will of the people” is a vital component for how new technologies are applied. If there is no trust, a poor narrative, few discernible benefits, and a lack of open dialogue, then we risk misunderstandings, fear, and potentially a public backlash like the one we saw with GM crops, which caused them to be banned across Europe. Ultimately, everything we do as scientists, policy-makers and business leaders relies on the public’s perceptions – they vote with their feet and wallets, after all.

Last year's Summit also focused on public perception and its influence, focusing on GM and data

Essentially, I think public perceptions of technologies and wider behavioural change are tied up into three crucial components: firstly, an evidence-led grassroots movement from lobbyists and communities, such as environmental NGOs; secondly it requires media coverage with trusted, influential voices carrying the debate, which we’ve seen before with documentaries such as Blue Planet II, Blackfish, and An Inconvenient Truth, leading to a viral social media narrative and a constant place on the news agenda; thirdly we need to offer alternatives, like having access to reusable coffee cups.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution holds unprecedented amounts of potential. It’s disrupting almost every industry in every country. Reflecting on discussions from the past Huxley Summits, the public has always been at the heart of our debate. We must listen to their concerns and ultimately drive innovation for their benefit, building resilience to withstand risks that are still unknown to us. But it’s a fine balancing act – will the public embrace new technologies and possibly change the course of nature, or reject them and miss their array of opportunities? Whichever way the coin falls, we need to implement the right messages, policies, products and funding that reflects the public’s important and influential views and behaviours. As scientists, policy makers, business leaders, and global voices, we must shoulder this responsibility.

By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we can help propel the world towards a positive future; a world made healthier, cleaner and fairer by technology. This is what the Huxley Summit is all about today – setting up the conversations and bringing people together so that we’re ready for what’s ahead of us, whatever way the tide changes.