Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 26, 2005
* Anheuser-Busch Trapped In Social-Issue Snare
* Garden Variety Vaccines May Be Edible Alternative
* India: A New Book on Biosafety of Transgenic Rice
* Early Adoption of GM Tech to Bring Benefits for Poland
* Free-Range Chicken Psychology?
* Golden GM Rice Shines Again
* Benefits of Biotech Crops
* Peer Slams GM Opposition
* Innovating To Halve Hunger By 2015: MIT Conference
* Next Generation of U.S. AgBiotech: Politics, Policy, and Plant-Made Pharma
* Igniting Americans' Passion for Science
Anheuser-Busch Trapped In Social-Issue Snare
- Steven Milloy, The New York Sun, April 25, 2005
Corporate managers might want to think twice about publicly engaging in environmental and social controversies. Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch's managers are the latest to learn this lesson the hard way.
AB's self-inflicted problem began innocently enough when Ventria Bioscience, a biopharmaceutical company, requested approval from the Department of Agriculture to plant about 200 acres of biotech rice this spring. The rice is engineered with human genes to produce proteins for use in medicines.
The Missouri Farm Bureau, universities, and numerous biotech researchers supported Ventria's request. The ensuing USDA environmental assessment concluded the proposed biotech planting didn't pose a threat of contamination to nearby conventional rice crops.
But here's where things went awry. Missouri rice growers asked the USDA to deny Ventria's request. Anheuser-Busch, which buys Missouri rice to brew Budweiser, joined the growers against Ventria.
But why would Missouri's rice industry, which produces about 30 million bushels of rice worth $95 million annually, be threatened by Ventria's measly 200 acres of biotech rice meant for medical research -- especially since, according to experts, there's no risk of the biotech rice disseminating and mixing with conventional crops?
Enter the activists. Anti-technology environmental groups, like Greenpeace, have long been working to terrify the public about agricultural biotechnology, labeling foods made with biotech crops as "Frankenfoods."
Although science shows, and regulatory agencies agree, that human health and the environment aren't at risk from biotech crops, the Green biotech scare has had some success.
Most notoriously, Greenpeace coerced Novartis AG in 1999 to forswear biotech crops in its Gerber baby foods by faxing a letter - addressed simply, "To the CEO," because Greenpeace didn't know name of Novartis's CEO - asking, "Does Gerber use genetically engineered products in its baby food? If so, which products? What steps have you taken, if any, to ensure that you are not using [biotech crops]?"
Then last year, Monsanto announced it was shelving plans to develop biotech wheat because there was no market for the seeds - a condition created by Monsanto's inability to defend against Greenpeace's relentless activism.
Missouri's rice farmers are understandably concerned their markets might also evaporate if the Ventria application is approved - a concern not based in science, but rather on a "fear of fear." About 75% of Missouri's rice crop is exported and no country currently accepts biotech rice. It's not that Missouri rice might, in fact, be "contaminated" with biotech rice, but if activists make the allegation, importers might ban the rice until the matter is resolved.
A similar scare in 2000 involving taco shells alleged to contain traces of a type of biotech corn not yet approved for human consumption forced Kraft Foods into a product recall. No doubt Anheuser-Busch rightly became interested in the biotech rice controversy wanting to avoid repeating Kraft's taco-shell nightmare with flagship brand Budweiser. But then AB erred, publicly announcing in early April that if Ventria's request were approved, it would not buy any rice grown or processed in Missouri.
Though a compromise with Ventria was soon reached, requiring that the biotech rice be grown at least 120 miles away from the rice-growing region of southeast Missouri, and AB withdrew its threatened boycott, the controversy is far from over.
The incident didn't escape the notice of anti-technology activists who, always scanning the environment looking for vulnerable corporate managements, started mobilizing to pressure AB about biotech rice further a field. The Chinese government may soon approve biotech rice. Anti-technology activists, led by Greenpeace, are apoplectic over the commercialization of a biotech version of the world's largest food staple.
The activists plan to pressure AB to, in turn, pressure the Chinese government not to approve biotech rice. AB, after all, brews Budweiser in China and owns 27% of the Chinese beer Tsingtao. AB, says one activist, "is capable of making a very effective stand against [biotech] rice in China.
AB managers' job is to sell beer, not to pressure foreign governments on behalf of American activists. Its managers should have worked quietly to resolve its concerns with Ventria, rather than placing the company in the precarious position of either being labeled hypocritical or having to take an uneasy stand against the Chinese government and an unconscionable stand against biotechnology.
Garden Variety Vaccines May Be Edible Alternative
- Linda Marsa, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2005
'Genetically altered potatoes boost immunity to hepatitis B in a study. Researchers hope treatment works on other diseases.'
Someday, getting inoculated against diseases may be as easy as munching on tomatoes and lettuce or swallowing capsules stuffed with genetically altered vegetables. Already, plant biologists have devised an experimental potato-derived vaccine that reduces the risk of contracting hepatitis B, a viral infection that attacks the liver.
Each year the disease sickens 350 million people worldwide and kills 1 million; although there is an effective vaccine, many impoverished nations can't afford it. "This is exciting research because the vaccine survived in the digestive tract, and the body was able to pluck out the protein that stimulated an immune response," says Dr. Carol O. Tacket, a scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore who has studied plant-derived vaccines. "A real critical mass is forming around this technology, which could lower the cost of vaccines and decrease the risks of taking them."
The genetically engineered, potato-derived hepatitis B vaccine is the first in an anticipated wave of edible vaccines that experts say could save millions of lives, especially in the developing world in which 3 million infants die each year from preventable diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria and measles.
Oral vaccines made from plants have many distinct advantages over conventional vaccines. They can be made for pennies a dose, compared with up to $40 for conventional shots; they need no refrigeration because they don't contain live viruses; and they're safer than injections, which require syringes that can become accidentally contaminated and transmit diseases such as HIV.
They could even be grown in the country in which they are used, thus avoiding the costly logistics of transporting vaccines over extremely long distances. "An oral vaccine is also more acceptable to people in the developing world than some stranger with an ice chest putting needles in the arms of their kids," says Charles Arntzen, a plant biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe who helped devise the potato-based hepatitis B vaccine.
The vaccine was made by splicing a gene from the hepatitis B virus into potatoes' genomes. The gene is responsible for producing antigens that prompt the body's immune system to dispatch antibodies, the protective cells that fight viruses. The potatoes were then cloned and cultivated.
In a recent test of 42 human volunteers, about 60% showed signs of immunity against hepatitis B after eating bite-sized pieces of the raw genetically-altered potatoes. Conventional vaccines for the virus have a 90% immunization rate.
Since then, Arntzen and his colleagues, in hopes of boosting the immune response, have taken the technology one step further. They've freeze-dried slivers of the genetically modified potatoes and ground them into a flaky powder, creating an extract whose potency can be measured. The material can then be packed into gelatin capsules.
The capsule form allows researchers to create uniform doses of the antibody-producing antigens contained in the potatoes -- and prevent the transgenic edibles from inadvertently cross-pollinating with regular crops and becoming part of the food chain.
Arntzen says he hopes an edible hepatitis B vaccine will be available with the next five years. "This is a new strategy for producing and disseminating vaccines in places that are hard to reach," he says. ----
The next crop of vaccines: Edible vaccines to thwart other pathogens are also in the pipeline.
Using potatoes, tobacco and tomatoes, Arizona State University researchers are developing plant-based vaccines to combat cholera, the Norwalk virus (an intestinal infection that is the scourge of cruise ships) and the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer. Scientists at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia have devised transgenic spinach, which preliminary human tests showed stimulated the production of antibodies to rabies.
On another front, Loma Linda University researchers have developed a potato-based vaccine that could prevent Type 1 diabetes, which is caused by an autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. A 1999 animal study showed the vaccine reduced the onset of diabetes by nearly 60%, according to William H. R. Langridge, a biochemist at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. "The next step is human trials," he says.
India: A New Book on Biosafety of Transgenic Rice Released
A new book entitled "Biosafety of Transgenic Rice" containing the proceedings of an International workshop on Biosafety of Transgenic Rice held at Chennai, India from October 27-30, 2002 was released earlier this month. The book is a publication of National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi India which was also the organizer of the workshop. The workshop was sponsored by Syngenta International with support from Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The editors of the book are V. L. Chopra, S. Shantharam and R.P. Sharma.
The book contains a total of 15 papers presented at the workshop, a set of discussion papers form the panel discussions and a set of recommendations emanating form the workshop. Surprisingly a large number of important papers by Klaus Ammann, B.N. Singh, Paul Christou, and Wes Jamison are missing, but an unrelated paper by C. Kameswara Rao on Bt cotton finds inclusion in a book on transgenic rice. Although the book is inordinately delayed, the recommendations of the workshop can be still helpful in the ongoing discussions on the safe deployment of transgenic rice. Copies of the book can be had from the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences at firstname.lastname@example.org
http://www.naas-india.org and http://education.vsnl.com/naas
Early Adoption of GM Technology Would Bring Large Benefits for Poland
Early adoption of GM technology in arable crops would bring clear farm level and environmental benefits for Poland according to a new report published today.
The report formally published in the journal Biotechnologica, shows that the application and use of the GM agronomic traits of herbicide tolerance to oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize, and insect (Bt) resistance in maize offers Poland both economic and environmental benefits.
According to Graham Brookes, one of the authors of the report , 'Polish arable farmers have the potential to gain more from early adoption of GM technology than their EU 15 counterparts because they are starting from a lower average level of technical efficiency and therefore they will derive greater productivity gains. The GM technology offers scope for accelerating the process of 'productivity catch up' post EU accession, enabling Polish producers to compete more effectively, and earlier than they might otherwise have been capable of, if they did not use GM technology'.
Key findings of the research forecast that adoption of GM technology would annually result in:
1. Between a +10% and +19% increase in output for crops like oilseed rape (of value for export and as a raw material for bio-fuels) and sugar beet (of value for export without subsidy or for use in non food sectors like bio-ethanol); 2. An increase in annual added value for Polish production of the three crops of between +¤55 million and +¤116 million; 3. An increase in farm (gross margin) income of between ¤67 million and ¤123 million. 4. The volume of herbicides applied would fall by between a third and a half and result in a net reduction in the toxicity level of products applied. Using a measure of mammalian toxicity, the total level of doses applied would fall by between 38% and 67%; 5. Greater opportunity to move to low tillage cultivation methods which reduce soil disruption, erosion and the release of carbon dioxide from ploughing and hence make a positive contribution to reducing the impact of global warming.
- Graham Brookes, Tel: +44 (0)1303 840958; E-mail: email@example.com
Free-Range Chicken Psychology?
- Jonathan Gressel
I sent Tom DeGregori the following questions after his editorial - and he suggested that I post them as he did not have the answer:
1. Does anyone have data on Salmonella in free range vs. battery chickens? Free range chickens eat a lot of feces that battery chicken have no access to.
2. Re. Chicken psychology - who should be happier - the one that has to continually scrounge for food - fighting her peers all the time and getting pecked - the term pecking order is quite true, as I have seen many a bloodied free range chicken in my youth vs the ones that have food in front of them at all times - without being surrounded by cohorts or raped by roosters who hop aboard whenever they feel like it - and when she does lay fertilized eggs in a hidden nest - have the farmer come and steal them (and label them "fresh")?
... I do not think the good old days were better for a chicken. Both roads lead to the pot, and the battery seems more humane.
Golden GM Rice Shines Again
- SCIDEV.net 25 April 2005
'Golden rice' has been genetically modified (GM) to produce beta-carotene - a yellow-orange pigment our bodies can convert to vitamin A. When biotechnology company Syngenta launched golden rice five years ago, some hailed it as the answer to vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of blindness and death in developing countries.
The disappointment when the rice failed to live up to its promise resulted from it being wrongly touted as a single solution to vitamin A deficiency, argues this editorial in Nature Biotechnology. It adds that golden rice should be part of wider efforts, such as educational programmes, to improve nutrition.
The first version of golden rice would have provided people with 15-20 per cent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A. Syngenta estimates the new version (golden rice 2) would provide 50 per cent of the RDA. But environmental activists are opposed to golden rice, partly because it uses GM technology, partly because it could encourages reliance on just one staple food.
Syngenta, a member of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network, will work with plant breeders in countries such as Bangladesh, China and India to give grains of golden rice 2 free to poor small-scale farmers to grow. This, says the editorial, shows how GM technology could help tackle both poverty and health problems facing developing countries - if only those who oppose GM crops would relax their stance and weigh up the technology's costs and benefits.
Benefits of Biotech Crops
- Ross Korves, Truth About Trade and Technology, April 21, 2005
As production of biotech crops enters its tenth year and approaches one billion acres planted, the economic and environmental benefits continue to be documented. Large scale, high tech farmers and limited resource farmers in developing countries are benefiting from this new technology with lower costs and increased profits. Per acre use of pesticides has declined, and less soil erosion has occurred due to less soil tillage.
The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (National Center) of Washington, DC in October of 2004 released a study "Impacts on U.S. Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2003." It is an update of 11 case studies released in 2002 using data from the 2001 crops. The study showed that in 2003 U.S. farmers saved $1.5 billion through lower production costs, reduced pesticide use by 46.4 million pounds and increased yields by 5.3 billion pounds. The total economic impact at the farm level was $1.9 billion. While these numbers are impressive, the benefits are more real when looked at for individual crops and conditions.
Root-worn resistant corn hybrids became commercially available in 2003 and were planted on 340,000 acres. According to the National Center study, based on typical insecticide use of 0.66 pounds per acre of active ingredient insecticide use declined by about 225,000 pounds compared to conventional practices. Corn yields increased by 4.5 bushels per acre. Corn producers responded to these outcomes by planting about 3 million acres in 2004 and insecticide use declined by 1.98 million pounds. With a greater availability of seed supplies, acreage should be substantially higher again this year and will result in further reductions in insecticide use and higher production of corn.
The 225,000 pound reduction in insecticide active ingredients used for root-worm resistant corn in 2003 was only a small part of the reduction in insecticide use due to biotech crops. Corn varieties resistant to European corn borers, southwestern corn borer and other pests used 3.7 million less pounds of insecticide active ingredient compared to conventional corn varieties. Insect resistant cotton varieties led to a 3.2 million pound reduction in insecticide active ingredient use on cotton in 2003. The total reduction in active ingredient insecticide use in 2003 according to the National Center study was 7.1 million pounds.
The insect resistant corn varieties led to an average 4.0 bushels increase in yield, $10 per acre. The insect resistant cotton had an average yield increase of 59 pounds per acre, $30 per acre.
The greatest reduction in pesticide use in 2003 came from herbicide tolerant crops. According to the National Center study, biotech soybeans resulted in a 20.1 million pound reduction in herbicide active ingredients, cotton 9.6 million pounds, corn 9.4 million pounds and canola 0.15 million pounds for a total of 39.2 million pounds of herbicide active ingredients. Corn and cotton had just under a one pound reduction in herbicide active ingredients for each acre planted to herbicide tolerant varieties and soybeans had a one-third pound reduction for each acre.
The herbicide tolerant varieties of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola resulted in a reduction in pesticide costs, but not generally an increase in yields. The herbicide tolerant varieties resulted in production cost savings of $22 per acre for cotton, $20 per acre for soybeans, $12 for canola and $10 for corn.
The benefits of biotech crop varieties extend beyond lower costs, higher production and reduced pesticide use. The increased flexibility for managing weed control has allowed for continued expansion of no-till farming that reduces soil erosion. According to the National Center report, since biotech crops were first introduced in 1996, farmers have increased no-till soybean acres by 45 percent, no-till corn by 14 percent and no-till cotton by 300 percent. No-till crop production also results in less fuel use and lower machinery costs which further improve the bottom line for producers.
Positive economic and environmental results of biotech crop varieties have also been documented in developing countries. A 2002 study by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute in The Hague, Netherlands on Chinese adoption of Bt cotton in 1999 by 282 cotton farmers reported that adopters of Bt cotton sprayed 60 percent fewer times (from an average of 20 times to an average of 8 times) and reduced insecticide expenditures by 82 percent. Seed costs for Bt cotton were 100-250 percent higher, but follow-up research showed that seed costs declined over time. Yields for 1999-2001 increased by 7-15 percent, with an average of 10 percent, compared to conventional cotton. In 2004 two-thirds of China's cotton was Bt cotton.
India has over a million acres of Bt cotton and is achieving similar results. A recent survey by IMRB International of 3,199 farmers reported a 58 percent improvement in productivity and a 60 percent rise in profits. Australian farmers report another benefit from Bt cotton - the preservation of "beneficial" organisms like spiders, wasps and ladybirds. By reducing insecticide applications from 18 times a year to three, more beneficials remain alive and eat harmful pests.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications biotech crops were grown on 200 million acres of cropland in 2004, 5 percent of all global cultivable cropland. Worldwide biotech crop acreage increased by 32.9 million acres in 2004, with developing countries increasing by 17.8 million acres and developed countries by 15.1 million acres. Developing countries now account for 34 percent of total biotech acres.
With the benefits of biotech crops clearly established in both developed and developing countries, acreage will continue to increase as more crop varieties are developed and regulatory structures allow for their increased adoption. Farmers and consumers will continue to benefit from increased supplies of food and fiber, lower costs of production and less pesticide use and soil loss.
Peer Slams GM Opposition
- Farmers Weekly (UK), March 21, 2005 (via Vivian Moses)
A Liberal Democrat peer has accused the green lobby of "misuse" of evidence of GM crops in a new book, the Sunday Telegraph reports. 'The March of Unreason' by Lord Dick Traverne accuses Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other green groups of "blind faith and deep bias" in their opposition to GM crops.
Lord Traverne told the paper that the green lobby's opposition had done enormous damage to Britain's biotechnology industry.
Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, rejected the accusations and said that the green lobby took science very seriously.
Meanwhile, scientists have told the Daily Telegraph that genetically modified crop trials have been effectively halted in Britain because of protests by environmental activists.
The country's leading centre for GM crop research said it had been forced to move trials abroad or end them entirely because they were constantly torn up by protesters.
Prof Ian Crute, director of the research unit at Rothamsted, Herts, said: "Every time we attempt a field trial of a new laboratory-created variety, extremists come along and dig up our plants." No trials had been attempted for the past 18 months, he added.
"We have had to export our experiments to other countries and they are the ones who will reap the benefits."
Innovating To Halve Hunger By 2015: Innovation Challenges & Initial Strategies
- April 26, 2005; MIT, Boston, USA
* Pedro Sanchez, Co-Chair, Task Force on Hunger, UN Millennium Project Global, National, and Local Perspectives on Hunger and Poverty
* Eric Bost, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, USDA: A Perspective on U.S. Capacity for Response
* William S. Niebur, Vice President for Discovery, Crop Genetics Research and Development, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc: Translating Strategy into Operational Reality - The 10 Year View
Moderator: * Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Co-Chair, Science, Technology and Innovation Task Force, UN Millennium Project,
Questions: Fleming Ray (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Trends affecting the Next Generation of U.S. Agricultural Biotechnology: Politics, Policy, and Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals
- Patrick A. Stewart and Andrew J. Knight, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 72, No. 5; June, 2005; email@example.com; Arkansas State University, State University, AR 72467, USA. Excerpts below...
This paper analyzes the structure and history of regulatory policies in the United States, focusing on recent regulatory changes due to the promise and threat posed by plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs). PMPs are the latest advance in the genetic engineering of plants and promise to produce medicines inexpensively and abundantly by using a range of different plants as factories to express active medicinal ingredients; however, PMPs may pose a risk to the public's health if they enter the food supply.
How the benefits and risks of PMPs are addressed by the respective government's regulation and how this will affect what, if any, products make it to the marketplace and their ultimate success are of great concern to many different parties, ranging from consumers and farmers to health and food production industries. As a result, this paper addresses the history of agricultural biotechnology regulatory policy since 1972, arguing that three distinct periods may be identified: (1) from 1972 to 1986 when the new biotechnology was focused on scientific self-regulation in the laboratory; (2) from 1987 to 2002, as the technology was being developed and widespread release of certain technologies became more common and was not perceived as an environmental threat, regulations became increasingly laxer; and finally, (3) we argue that we are entering a third phase with a series of controversies over regulatory infractions involving genetically engineered (GE) plants and the potential threats posed by PMPs.
Conclusions The awareness of the potential for agricultural biotechnology to transform the landscape of American farming through the development of economically important new products, including PMPs and PMIPs, has long been recognized. Just less than 10 years ago, this journal devoted a special issue to "Biotechnology and the Future of Agriculture and Natural Resources". Then, uncertainty over the future of agricultural biotechnology was based upon the lack of financial support for research and development as well as vague and unfocused regulations. These same concerns exist now in spite of better characterized biotechnology-based science and technology and a better understanding of economic and ecological risks and benefits.
The concerns over the new agricultural biotechnology are often termed as one in which the issue is less about the science of GE crops and more about the social issues in which this technology is nested. This "surrogate for safety" is a reflection on the idea that "in many areas of life there is less and less control. For some segments food offers some control.". The threat of drugs and medicines, as well as a variety of industrial compounds, entering the food supply through normal production channels can be seen as particularly dreaded by the American public, which, while largely unaware of the extent of genetically modified products in their food supply, have been attenuated to threats to their security since 9-11. In spite of the lack of evidence of human disability through consumption of GE foods, concern has increasingly been raised in the European Union, which is establishing labeling standards, and Africa, where GE corn destined for famine relief was turned down due to health and ecological concerns.
While the history of field release of genetically modified plants had been one of technical domination by insiders, with regulatory change largely ignored by the general public, recent events involving threats to monarch butterflies by Bt corn, potentially allergenic Starlink Bt corn meant solely for animal feed entering the U.S. food supply, and PMPs produced by Prodigene nearly entering the American food system have alerted the American public to potential threats, rupturing the previously insular policy subsystem. While these events provide evidence that the regulatory system is being successfully implemented, their occurrence has drawn attention to gaps in the Coordinated Framework.
At least two recent events have the potential to further expand the scope of concern and thus conflict. A report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called into question the enforcement of guidelines set by EPA requiring growers using Bt corn to set aside land as refuge for pest management purposes. Here, corporations have been called upon to regulate farmers directly due to the use of preexisting pesticide regulations under the Coordinated Framework--a task for which they are not well suited. And most recently, on November 12, 2003, a coalition of environmental groups and consumer advocates sued USDA in federal court to stop the field testing of PMPs due to lack of risk assessment concerning other crops, wildlife, and humans.
In light of these concerns and reflected in the rapidly changing field release regulations of PMPs and PMIPs put forward for comment in the Federal Register in March and August of 2003, there is a high likelihood that the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology will continue to change. Whether this change will occur in the form of marginal alterations in the regulatory approach by EPA, FDA, and USDA, especially in the case of the latter with the newly constituted APHIS-BRS, while retaining the Coordinated Framework, or a major change in the regulations through the creation of a new agency or approach, remains to be seen. As more becomes known about this still young technology and its potential for health, ecotoxicological and ecological effects, as well as the complex and nonlinear environment it operates in, the more likely negative side effects will be discovered and dealt with. Already, both USDA-APHIS and EPA are strengthening their ties with each other with monthly coordinated phone calls and are enhancing transparency and ties with stakeholders through public workshops and meetings. Additionally, greater attention is being given to different means of approaching ecological control of these products, in light of a newly released National Academy of Sciences report on the biological confinement of GE organisms.
Regardless, new agricultural-environmental biotechnologies stand on a precipice of change. Over the next 15 years, they may continue to change how food, drugs, and industrial products are produced, or they may be yet another failed technology along the lines of nuclear power with its plants withdrawn from farmers' fields, depending on how issues dealing with public trust in regulations are addressed. In either case, it is social support for the technology and trust in regulatory institutions that matter most.
Igniting Americans' Passion for Science
- Pfizer Journal
Americans need to better understand the efforts of scientists, and scientists need to better understand the public. The media are an important bridge.
While most Americans say they are interested in science and health care discoveries, a significant proportion admit that they don't feel well informed about either. Equally troubling, the number of those who say that they do feel well informed has been steadily slipping: Just 48% said they felt well informed about new scientific discoveries in 1997; by 2001, only 42% felt well informed. Similarly, the percentage of those who said they feel well informed about medical discoveries has declined from 56% to 50%. In fairness, it must be recognized that science and health care have become more complex and sophisticated--and therefore more difficult to understand.
Americans may not even follow a scientific development they recognize as significant. In a Pew Research Center survey, consumers identified mapping the human genome as the top science story of 2000, but only 16% said they were closely following the story. In contrast, 61% said they closely followed rising gas prices--clearly, a less complex story with obvious relevance. What strategies can scientists and journalists use to help Americans feel more comfortable in following science and health care news?
Strategies for Scientists The strong demand for people with a story to tell is creating opportunities for scientists to connect with the public to ignite their interest in science and health. As Dr. Dan explained, "Writers are always searching for people who can simplify complicated science so the public can understand it and make competent decisions about what's important in their lives."
"The good news," added Dr. Chappell, "is that communicators are made, and not born, as my colleague and TV reporter Jim Hartz would say. Nobody jumps out of the crib and becomes the well-known science communicator Carl Sagan. You've got to work at it. Institutions--whether universities or pharmaceutical companies--need to create opportunities for scientists to communicate." According to the Worlds Apart survey, 81% of scientists would be willing to take courses that would help them better communicate with journalists and the public. Also, 89% would welcome visits and conversations with the media--though 26% have never been interviewed and another 59% have been interviewed no more than once in a year.
Train for the media event. "We try to media-train our scientists just before we're about to release some big news that we think is important enough to expect calls from the media," commented Dr. Widlitz. "But that is done on an as-needed basis. In general, however, I think research industries like pharmaceutical companies need to spend more time and attention teaching the scientists to communicate," he noted. "Scientists need to be able to explain what they do and how it becomes important to people's lives."
Know the writers. Get to know the local press, suggested Dr. Dan: "When I'm talking to scientists and clinicians, I ask how many have met, called, or talked to their local medical reporter either in the newspaper or on television. I stress how important it is for researchers to connect with the media before they have a story to be told. Instead of a cold call--'Hello, you don't know me or anything about me, but I want you to put my story on your broadcast or in your paper tomorrow'--it is much more effective to be able to phone and say, 'Hey, how are you doing? What's new? I've got something really new for you today.' That takes preparation, but it can pay off."
"Sometimes, I feel like I'm solicited too much by scientists, companies, and universities," commented Ms. Apsell. "On the other hand, it's great to be called by scientists who clue us in on what they or others are doing. We couldn't do the stories we do without scientists telling us what they're doing."
"Scientists need to be able to explain what they do and how it becomes important in people's lives." - Dr. Widlitz
Be available. If a reporter calls, return the call promptly. "Making yourself available is crucial," said Mr. Patrusky. "What reporters want most of all is to get the story right. We often need your expertise to do that. Take the time to answer questions, no matter how naïve they may seem. Not only will that help ensure reportorial accuracy and help gain recognition for your work, but it's also a way of cementing relationships and gaining a reputation as a reliable, go-to source."
Get personal. "Scientists need to talk about themselves, what fueled their passion for discovery, and share the tragedies that make the triumphs so exciting," observed Dr. Chappell. "The general assignment reporter who comes to get the story on research results will rarely go in that direction. But it is important for scientists to describe the process of science, the challenges and how they were overcome, and what surprising things happened. Just like on the promo for ABC Sports, science has all the agony of defeat and the elation of discovery.
Scientists need to enrich the story with those personal details. "As a scientist, the first thing I do in an interview is give a succinct explanation of what my research is about, what my goals are, and what I've found," summarized Dr. Chappell. "After I deliver my message, I pay attention to showing excitement about the process of science that I hope will inspire the interviewer and, ultimately, the consumers. Then I talk about myself so that the research has a personal face to it. The Office of Science and Research Communication calls this covering the three P's-that is, describing the product or outcome of the research, the process of science, and the personal side of the scientist. If the scientist covers the three P's and the writer reports them, the story will have more depth than the typical news flash 'Professor So-and-So discovered X,'" concluded Dr. Chappell. Use analogies and metaphors to simplify the complex. "When I'm tolling for scientists to present at a New Horizons in Science program, I look for investigators who have it in them to explain their research to their mothers, or better yet their grandmothers," added Mr. Patrusky.
"Nobel laureate Richard Feynman used to say that if you can't explain the research you did to a freshman, you don't understand it," recalled Dr. Chappell. "If you can, you're a good communicator. All scientists need to have analogies and metaphors to explain the esoteric things they do, to give life to the subject and help the general public understand."
Collaborate with the media. "We tell the scientists who write for us that they should see publishing as a collaboration," commented Mr. Rennie. "What they, as scientists, bring to the story is their knowledge and expertise. What we ask them to do is extend a certain amount of faith or confidence to us that we know best how to communicate with the audience that we have."
Tips for Writers "The amount of medical information is going to increase," predicted Dr. Dan. "In that environment, we need well-educated health reporters. Just as smarter patients are better patients, smarter health reporters are better health reporters. Reporters need to understand the core elements of science to do their job well and avoid drowning in a sea of ignorance."
Overall, the panelists stressed the need for science storytellers to stay within the bounds of their story, to go beyond journals and interact with scientists, and to link national stories to local developments connecting with local researchers and clinicians.
Don't overpromise. "'No Good. Story at 11.' That sort of hype is a big problem," said Mr. Hoffman. "The reporter may get one study that questions whether mammograms identify tumors of a certain type. When the story is turned over to the person who writes the teaser or blurb to get viewers to tune in to the news at 11, misinformation can go out to the public. To minimize this, a reporter needs to avoid overpromising in the story. Stay within the limits of the story, and put the story in perspective so that people can understand that this is indeed a step, but not necessarily the final conclusion. Also, explain the next steps. In all journalism, but especially in science and medical reporting, it is important to say what can happen next and when you might be back with a follow-up."
Providing the context for a report of a single study is critical, stressed Dr. Mason: "People become confused and hesitate to trust anything about health care in the news when journalists report results of a single study that reaches one conclusion this week and another single study that reaches the opposite conclusion the following week. Contradictory conclusions are not unusual, especially in early research. We need to help the public understand the process of discovery so they become interested in joining us on the journey."
Mr. Ross added that science stories need to give people enough information to evaluate research reported: "A news story about new medical research should include information about the sample size in the study, whether the subjects were humans or animals, how variables were controlled, who funded the study, and a discussion of any practical applications."
Connect with the scientists. Just as scientists were advised to connect with reporters, reporters need to connect with researchers. "A reporter who scans The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Science, and Nature can complete an entire week of stories without ever leaving the office," noted Mr. Patrusky. "I know it's often an issue of money, but one of the best ways for reporters to discover what's really exciting is to cover meetings and rub elbows with the scientists. It's at meetings that you get the feel and flavor of what's really going on and what's coming. Every scientist who is moving in a new direction, who is questioning established thinking, has somebody saying, 'You're wrong.'
Exciting controversy is everywhere in science. It's at meetings that you really get to the lowdown." In trying to get the time and attention of a scientist, Mr. Patrusky has pointed out, "When it comes to interactions with the press, every scientist yearns to be needed and honored. This attitude may be about ego, but it's also about accomplishment and contribution. Each scientist has a receptor for being needed and honored; all we have to do is find the right signal transducer to open it up and we're in."
Bring home the story. Feature the local relevance of national and international science news, suggested the panelists. "One way for journalists to do that is to seek out experts at the local medical center or university to flesh out the story and make it more immediate," said Mr. Patrusky.
Future Convergence In today's multimedia world, many in the media have begun to offer stories to consumers in a variety of ways that allow them to access the stories when and where they want them--reading papers and magazines, watching television, listening to radio, or going online. Called convergence, this media approach allows consumers to dig as deeply as they want into the background of stories. A scientist can publish a complete research report on the Internet with links to related research. A newspaper can report the research with interviews of the reporting scientist and others involved in similar research who have reached complementary or contradictory conclusions. A television station can report the research with an interview of the scientist, as well as patients who might be affected. Professional societies and peerreviewed journals have already begun to gear up by issuing multimedia press releases. The American College of Physicians, for example, produces monthly video news stories for TV news stations featuring new research from the Annals of Internal Medicine, clinical guidelines, and other topics.  Similarly, the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, produces "Medical Edge," a weekly 90-second TV news insert as a self-contained reporter package or breakaway video with graphic elements that local stations can use. 
How are science writers preparing? "At Columbia University, the students who take science writing come from all the different media," explained Mr. Ross. "Broadcast, print, Web, television, and radio students all take the same science writing course--though we explain that the different media have different storytelling idioms. For example, in radio and TV, very often the story is the person affected; to tell that story, the reporter has to find a patient and then briefly get into the science by highlighting something that could help the patient. In print, the reporter is more likely to lead with the science for a typical news story.
"Media convergence is often maligned. But for science reporting, it can be great. On the Web, you can have standing copy about the scientific method, some history about how research is done, and link to it from your news story. The danger is that it can make people lazy. Reporters want the main story to include all of that stuff; we don't want to rely only on the links. But there is much more room to talk about scientific method and similar stories in a Web environment," noted Mr. Ross.
"In papers like the Chicago Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, a lot of science and business writers are reporting for all the media at once. The Tribune even has a joint newsroom where reporters are writing for the newspaper, the wire service, WGN radio, and WGN television, which is a satellite-distributed superstation. The same reporter does multiple stories and feeds the wire service to other newspapers and other broadcasters as well. That is clearly one look at what I think will be multiple parallel universes of media," concluded Mr. Ross.
"I firmly believe that in not too many years from now, people will have a big flat screen on the wall, and that's going to be the newspaper, radio, TV, and Internet. That's where people will go to get information. Reporters need to know that they're going to have to start learning how to deal with visuals and audio and not just printed words because it's all going to be together," added Dr. Dan.
As Gil Thelen, executive editor of the Tampa Tribune, explained media convergence, even now, people "wake up to a clock radio, scan a paper, listen to a morning TV show as they dress for work, tune to news radio in their cars, go online when they reach the workplace, listen to more radio on the way home, watch the evening news, finish the paper, read a magazine." In an effort to train journalism students to supply news and information in a variety of media, some schools have students develop a story idea for a newspaper one day, for broadcast the next, for online another day, and then write an interpretive story for a magazine.
Perhaps convergence will attract people who now say they are not interested in science, as well as satisfy researchers who complain about the oversimplification and inaccuracies in how their research is reported. "We need to continue talking about the best practices in science communication, the impact of news coverage on the public, and how the news sausage gets made," observed Ms. Rodgers. "Given the interest in these subjects, I'm optimistic about the process."
Interest in health care politics is what propelled Dr. Gupta to join the media: "I am interested in the way health care messages are transmitted. Going to a physician's office is no longer the way people get health information. They get it from television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet. That made me decide to be part of that process."
== Read other articles on Science and the Media from the Special Issue of Pfizer Journal at http://www.pfizerjournal.com/default.asp?a=journal&n=tpj35