Making sense of science in daily life

By Luis A. Ventura-Martinez

Luis Ventura-Martinez

If 50 years ago someone had told my grandfather, a small-holder farmer, that it was possible to use genetic modifications to breed new varieties of his crops faster, and in a more precise way, I am completely sure that he would have ignored it or replied, “Son cosas del diablo!”

Now if a mother in Africa had one of her sons lose his sight due to a deficiency of Vitamin A, and someone told her that a bio-fortified rice could have prevented that sad event, she likely would ask, while thinking of her other children, “Where I can get that rice?” How would you answer that question? Could you look into the eyes of a mother and tell her that Vitamin A-fortified Golden Rice exists, but is not available for her family?

As scientists, we face a lot of troubles inside the laboratory. But the bigger challenges are outside our labs, where the lay people live, work, and learn, because the information available to them is not necessarily science-based or easy to understand. For that reason, scientists must play a central role in making sense of science in daily life.

Science education could do far more to help people judge the scientific claims of the information presented to them. This becomes especially important given the decline in dedicated science journalists at news organizations. Increasingly, citizens are turning to the Internet, where science news is often marred by inconsistent quality and political motivations.

We should understand that the decision-making process incorporates both scientific and nonscientific information, and that social, cultural, and demographic differences influence how people engage with science, as does their personal interest in a specific topic. For example, a mother seeking therapies for her autistic son may explore research literature, but she is not necessarily attempting to understand that literature from a scientist's perspective. Instead, she is trying to get a better understanding of her son's disease in her own way.

Serving the needs of the public requires a different sort of activism, and new attention to evidence about how, when, and why people interact with science. We should find a way to take advantage of the curiosity of nonscientists.

This approach is especially important in discussions around biotechnology (GMOs). It’s a polemical topic that is important to everyone because one of the main applications of GMOs is agriculture, and everybody needs food. And now, with continuous population growth, we need to produce more food of better nutritional quality, while having less impact on the environment.

Over the past decades, scientists have been working to understand how DNA works. Their research has now given us the ability to edit the genetic information of an organism. This new technology, called CRISPR, claims to be more precise and offers huge potential in medicine, as well as for agriculture.

CRISPR genome-editing technology has shown its power in a series of spectacular achievements, like the creation of a long-sought “gene drive” that could eliminate pests or the diseases they carry. Depending on how it's used, CRISPR can do its work without leaving any foreign DNA behind. This is different than earlier techniques for genetically modifying organisms, which pose a challenge for regulators based on the presence of foreign DNA. If scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen. That is the simple truth. For better or worse, we all now in CRISPR's world.

Using the CRISPR technology's introduction as a case study, we can realize how complex this subject is. It represents the beginning of a new era, the synthetic biology era, where a large number of issues converge, such as science, politics, economics, and even ethics. For that reason, I sought the opinions of scientists who work with this topic in different perspectives around the world, including research, training, regulation, and communication.

One of the most important scientists in México is Beatriz “Betty” Xoconostle, PhD, who is training a new scientific generation. She is now beginning to work with this new technology in the National Research Center (CINVESTAV). As she noted: 

“Synthetic biologists design and build new combinations of genetic material that have the capacity to act like natural molecules. Their main goals are to get better therapies in medicine, and improve agriculture and industrial processes. For example, the use of bio-sensors or the improvement of industrial enzymes, as well as the development of new drugs to control human diseases that now are fatal, are just some examples of the potentiality of this new tools.

There is no doubt that a responsible use will substantially impact the technological independence of the region's countries.”

The challenges for scientists like Betty, who are actually working with GMOs and this new technology, are correcting misperceptions about new innovations in science techniques, navigating an imprecise regulatory framework, and dealing with the reality that science education is not a priority for all governments in the developing world.

Maria Mercedes Roca, PhD, is a science teacher who is interested in the regulation and biosafety of synthetic biology and its potential for education. As an advocate for the importance of science education, she stated:

“Education in general needs an overhaul in most countries, and especially in developing countries. Emphasis needs to be placed on coaching students in critical thinking and ethics, as well as in science and technology, so children in primary education and young people in secondary and tertiary education "learn to learn" by themselves, are familiar with technology, and develop an understanding of ethical behavior for the benefit of society and the environment. Failure to do so will continue to alienate different segments of society with grave consequences for the planet, as we are already witnessing. 

Established and emerging technologies affect society with intended impacts and unintended consequences in positive and negative ways. Emerging technologies that deeply affect and change the fiber of society include Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and biotechnologies such as genome editing and gene-drives. Technologies such as AI, combined with genome editing, can be used to manage diseases. These same technologies can also be used to enhance food production, clean and protect the environment from pollution, or to create biological weapons by terrorists.

These are now fundamental questions that society needs to address through education and to open a wider dialogue between different stakeholders. It is not too early to educate children in these technical and ethical issues, as they will have to live with the intended impacts and unintended consequences of these technologies.”                                                  

Communicating science is not easy, but it is a work that Mahaletchumy Arujanan, PhD, does every day because she is passionate about bringing biotechnology closer to society and engaging citizens as partners in the development of this industry. She has seen a number of innovative approaches in enhancing public understanding of biotechnology, and she shared why it is important for everyone to care about science:

“Everything we do has science elements – from the food we eat, to the medicines and drugs we take, to the vehicles we drive, to the chemicals we use, etc. And science offers various career options. These fields are rapidly advancing and we need the younger generation to fuel the sector. There is real need to be able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience as there is so much bad press about science, like GM technology, vaccines, etc. in the media. The public must have minimum science knowledge to understand the truth.”     

To understand science, we need to have a general perspective. As Reynaldo Ariel Álvarez Morales, PhD, an expert in biosafety and risk assessment, explained: 

“Science must be understood as the basis of development and well being of societies. It provides food, energy, medicines, and many technologies to promote and maintain good health and a healthy environment. Furthermore, many times people forget that there is not only the “hard science” but also social sciences that are necessary for good education and to eliminate gender discrimination and provide equal opportunities to people. It is also necessary to understand that in our reality, everything is linked together and very difficult to separate.”

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, new and innovative technologies like CRISPR are now a reality. But a global debate continues because some people think these new tools have a high risk associated with them. Therefore, they are seeking a special regulatory framework that is even more rigorous than the regulatory framework that exists for GMOs. Of course, some regulation is necessary. But an overly stringent regulatory framework will result in a deceleration of these scientific developments, which are especially needed to face problems in their regional context.

We should support this science and use all the available tools to produce enough food for everyone. It is important to show that this technology works and can help to solve some of the worldwide problems in food production.

Lucia de Souza, PhD, has extensive experience in teaching and has been actively involved in biosafety in the last 10 years. She shared why it is important to consider innovative scientific tools for food production: 

“The reason why I became a scientist was that I wanted to find solutions for existing problems. There are too many of them to be ignored. Not having enough food is a problem that hits about 800 million people. Keeping up with food production while at the same time diminishing the impact of agriculture on the environment is a concern many of us share. The use of new techniques and advances in agriculture, food production, conservation, etc. has made food accessible to  a much greater  number of people than in the past, but there’s still a lot to be done in a better way. I’m in favor of the responsible use of any technique based on its real merits, and new techniques are developed to improve the existing ones or to address problems that couldn’t be solved before. I do support the responsible use of new techniques in food production.”    

Serving the common good, supporting the independence of our countries, and ending world hunger are dreams shared by all of us who care about the use of scientific innovations in food production. We continue our work in the laboratory, the office, the classroom, and the field because we care about our future and the future of the next generations. I will share the dreams of the great scientists who collaborated on this article was possible because I am sure their dreams will be so similar to yours. 

The Maria Mercedes dream:

“To live in a world where people and countries operate as communities and cooperate, and do not behave as islands, where every country or different segments of society, divided by wealth, ethnicity, religion or ideology, look after their own benefits and interests, excluding others. I witnessed the "island mentality" at the recent UN Convention of Biological Diversity in Mexico in 2016. Governance and the development of policy to regulate established and emerging technologies, such as biotechnologies, is becoming paradoxically harder and more complex. As populations expand, demanding more resources, we face climate change and displacement of large segments of the population from one region to another (migration issues in the USA and Europe) and the world becomes more globalized with technology.

Education in critical thinking from the earliest age is necessary to foster an ethical mentality of sharing and cooperating. Investment by governments in social innovation, science and technology is key.”

The Mahaletchumy Arujanan dream:

“For science to be part of our culture, where it becomes a topic of discussion for the general public just like politics and sports are. I dream of a society that will be able to differentiate between science and pseudoscience. For emerging technologies to used responsibly without stifling their advancement. For developing countries to be owners of technologies.”​

The Ariel Alvarez dream:

“I dream of a time when societies are confident of the products of science and recognize this as the driving force which needs to be developed and nurtured to create and maintain a better future for all.”

The Lucia de Souza dream:

“I may have too many dreams to list them all. I dream that people can consciously make better informed choices; that people do not need to suffer from hunger and other problems; that we can take better care of the environment than we’ve done so far; that my kids, friends, etc. keep on having a great life."

If we support science, their dreams can be a reality, as well as your dreams and mine. We need to speak out together to become part of the debate around this topic. We need to show that we care and that we are willing to defend science. This is the moment to take action. We can make a difference using our most powerful tools: our knowledge and our voices. 

Luis A. Ventura-Martinez is a biologist on the Faculty of Science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), with expertise in biotechnology and biosafety, and an Alliance for Science 2016 Global Leadership Fellow representing Mexico.     

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