Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Need for Scientists to Engage the Public

I'm speaking at IAPB 2018 in Dublin Ireland and they asked me for a synopsis of my presentation for the media.  I liked it so much that I posted it here! 

Moving innovation to application means that scientists need to take advantage of every opportunity to engage the public, and then do it correctly. 

Consumers crave new technology.   They will queue up for a week to buy the newest mobile phone, even though the last version works well.  Transportation, communication, medicine—just several areas that are greatly improved because technology has enhanced the human experience.

But when we talk about food, the same consumers are skeptical or even afraid of technology.  There is a conspicuous drive to return to The Good Ol’ Days, a quest for the simple, and rejection of any technology that could alter plant genetics.  This, despite the fact that human efforts in crop improvement are the basis for civilization and ultimately the technology that gives them new mobile phones.

Plant biotechnology does not have an innovation problem.  

Plant biotechnology has an application problem. 

The scientific journals report grand stories of great innovations that address critical facets of the human condition.  Malnutrition, economically viable farming, enhanced consumer products, food security, environmental sustainability—scientists have created solutions that could satisfy these critical needs.

But the most transformative innovations sit on the shelf.  Brilliant technologies stand arrested,  and many scientists have thrown their hands in the air upon realizing that their best efforts may never be deployed.   In a world with a growing population, fewer farmers raising our food, and a changing climate, all solutions need to be considered.

The solution is better communication about what we do.  Scientists are not trained in the art of persuasion and nuanced communication at the public interface.  They make mistakes.  They build walls rather than bridges.

The presentation will describe what scientists do wrong, how they can get it right, where they need to meet the public, and ultimately how to change hearts and minds about food-related technologies.   The goal is to move that innovation to application, and serve our common interests with new technology.   It is an eye-opening discussion that changes the approach, as scientists learn that their best breakthroughs enjoy greater impact when communicated effectively.