SAFE IN THE IVORY TOWER?   Coping with  Luddites toward the 21st Century
> >       Peggy G. Lemaux
> >       Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
> >       University of California
> >       Berkeley, CA 94720
> >
> >I was stunned by the message!  Yes, I had read that European field tests of
> >genetically engineered plants by large multinational companies were being
> >destroyed by protesters and that farmers' fields in India containing
> >genetically engineered crops were being burned to the ground.  But now it
> >had happened in my own backyard!  I replayed the message on my answering
> >machine.  The disturbed voice of a student repeated that someone had
> >entered fenced, university property where his experimental plants were
> >growing and used machetes to cut his corn plants to the ground.
> >
> >The perpetrators, or "decontaminators" as referred to themselves, were
> >either unaware or didn't care that the plants they destroyed were not
> >genetically engineered.  Although a small percentage of the plants at this
> >university field station were genetically engineered, a part of a National
> >Science Foundation-funded study, the plants that were destroyed had been
> >created by classical breeding.  They were an integral part of the graduate
> >student's doctoral thesis and now his research would be delayed an entire
> >year because of the destruction!
> >
> >Can we as scientists continue to stand by and watch this happen?  Can we
> >let misunderstandings about modern plant biology and biotechnology go
> >unchallenged, resulting in painful interruptions in the training of
> >tomorrow's scientists or stopping our own pursuits of fundamental
> >scientific discovery?
> >
> >Over the years scientists have kept a low public profile, conducting their
> >research within the confines of their laboratories in universities,
> >publishing their research results and rarely communicating with the general
> >public about the implications of their work or its potential risks or
> >rewards to society.  Utilizing funding from federal grants was sufficient
> >for most scientists to make a living and to train the next generation of
> >scientists without having to justify or explain what they were doing to the
> >public.
> >
> >For decades, there was little to draw scientists out to engage in public
> >discussions about their work.  Biotechnology, I believe, is changing that
> >situation.  Few controversies in biology have caused this level of public
> >debate.  In the late 1980's to mid-1990's in the U.S., we saw chefs
> >refusing to serve genetically engineered foods in their restaurants,
> >scientists parading in moon suits in fields containing genetically
> >engineered organisms and parents dumping milk from BGH-treated cows into
> >the streets.  During this period here in the U.S., most scientists remained
> >comfortably in their laboratories while these events played out.  Those who
> >chose to venture out into the public arena were often misquoted or
> >misrepresented, only serving to drive them further into their "ivory
> towers".
> >
> >Do we have the luxury of continuing to stay cloistered within our
> >laboratories?  Of course, as scientists, we have a choice but the
> >consequences of that choice are clear.  We can stay on the sidelines and
> >hope that someone else takes on the responsibility of defending this
> >discipline.  The potential consequence of that choice might be that we lose
> >our ability to engage in scientific discovery using the new genetic tools
> >we helped to develop.  Or we can become actively involved, participating in
> >dialogue with public opinion makers, consumers and the press on the
> >technology's risks and benefits in an informed and professional manner.
> >The choice is ours.
> >
> >Deciding to do the latter is not a trivial commitment.  Interacting with
> >the public often requires more skills (and certainly different ones) than
> >we, as scientists, use in our own research.  Communicating effectively
> >requires sensitivity to the audience, knowledge of the topic and skill in
> >sculpting answers that are scientifically accurate, lead to minimal
> >misinterpretation and address the concerns of the public.  Deciding to
> >become an active player in public dialogue requires a dedication to
> >learning the skills necessary to do so effectively (see below).
> >
> >       If we, as scientists recognize the importance of communicating
> with the
> >public and make it a priority, I believe that we can make a difference in
> >the debate.  If we chose not to engage in this important exercise, we must
> >accept the consequences of remaining in our ivory towers!
> >
> >Note from ASPP Public Affairs Office:
> >
> >       ASPP is taking an active role in helping scientists enter the
> dialogue.
> >The ASPP Public Affairs office and Committee on Public Affairs can provide
> >background information for use in communicating with the media and the
> >public on plant science issues, such as the relative benefits and risks of
> >plant biotechnology.  To prepare a piece for an editorial page, we can
> >provide advice to ASPP members on procedures to follow to get a letter to
> >the editor published or to arrange a meeting with an editorial board (see
> >ASPP Public Affairs web page at:   For
> >examples of the potential benefits and risks of plant biotechnology, see
> >the issues section containing plant research briefing papers on the Public
> >Affairs web page (   For guidance in
> >preparing a "listener friendly" talk on general issues related to
> >agricultural biotechnology, see Peggy Lemaux's Generic Talk and Slide Set
> >on her web site, which is linked to the ASPP home page at
> >
> >
> >       It is best to proceed with letters to the editor, interviews with the
> >media and meetings with editorial boards at which you provide the content
> >of the presentation.  You do not need to feel compelled to invite members
> >of the "opposition," since this often is more confusing to the audience
> >than it is enlightening.  If you want assistance in these ventures from the
> >Committee on Public Affairs or the ASPP Public Affairs office, please
> >contact ASPP headquarters.  Remember, if your local newspapers don't hear
> >about the benefits of modern plant research from you, they may only hear
> >one-sided accounts about the risks of the research you do from anti-biotech
> >activists.
> >
> >                For a compelling reason to enter the fray, just look at
> >what activists
> >have done to the attitudes of the public toward genetic engineering in
> >Europe.  Activists have even demanded GM-free clothing be made available in
> >Britain (Nature Biotechnology 17:939,.1999)!  Imagine what this attitude
> >could do in the U.S. to future support decisions for federal research money
> >and your ability to use these tools in productive ways!
> >
> >Brian Hyps
> >Public Affairs Director
> >American Society of Plant Physiologists
> >15501 Monona Drive
> >Rockville, MD 20855
> >301-251-0560 (phone)
> >301-309-9196 (fax)
> >
> >

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