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Video Review: 'Engaging the Public with Genome Editing' series, Biochemical Society

7 May 2019
Appeared in BioNews 997

'So, forgive my ignorance, but… what do you actually do every day?'

As a scientist, this is a question I get asked all too frequently by friends and family. The separation between the scientific community and the wider public is seemingly ever growing, leaving people to wonder what exactly goes on in those lofty research institutions with curiously high security. Sadly, despite having massive implications for society, this is particularly true in the case of genome editing.

'Engaging the Public with Genome Editing' is a short YouTube series from the UK's Biochemical Society, aiming to rouse researchers to the importance of public engagement and equip them with the means to do so.

Over six videos, the series covers the why, how and to whom of discussing genome editing. It also delves into language to use in these conversations, how to talk about ethics, and describes a practical tool for discussing genome editing by means of a case study.

With this promised programme, I had assumed the videos would be instructional in nature. I had expected something like a lecture series, with a narrated commentary and clear take-home points. Instead, the videos are solely comprised of interview clips.

Admittedly, this does make for slower viewing, and gives the sense that you're watching a slightly disjointed panel discussion. Lacking an on-camera interviewer, the interviews are guided entirely by the questions in each video title. However, this also does a good job at focusing the viewer on the content of the discussion, which thankfully was very enriching. The interviews were conducted with nine individuals from a variety of positions; from scientific policymakers to lecturers, to bench scientists of all levels.

The first video of the series discusses the 'why' of engaging the public in discussions of genome editing – if you're only going to watch one of these videos, watch this one.

The main point emphasised was that the public defines policy. Without ensuring that the public properly understands the science and implications of genome editing, the public will not be able to make informed decisions to influence our government.

With the potential for such powerful technologies to be actualised and make real impacts in medicine and life sciences, we need scientists to work with the public at large to ensure that decisions are made that reflect carefully formed and confident opinions, while avoiding divisions as much as possible. I felt convinced of this need by the end of the video.

The rest of the series is useful for the now-impassioned researcher wanting to know how to go about engaging with the public. In the next video, addressing 'Who should you engage with?' the tone was pleasingly uncondescending.

All too often you hear scientists talk about public engagement as a one-way stream; a charitable duty that scientists must, begrudgingly, oblige to. I was delighted to hear several of the interviewees argue that public engagement is a fantastic way to further your work as a researcher. Not only is explaining your work to a layman an important tool for mastering a wider perspective of your work, it can also be extremely beneficial for hearing fresh ideas. When talking to people outside of your own sphere, unsurprisingly, they will think of things that you have not.

The subsequent two videos focused on the 'what' – what conversations to have and language to use. The subject of genome editing often carries highly emotional connotations, which are important to de-escalate. For instance, the term 'designer babies' is one so often used in media, but is far removed from the reality of research at present.

The nuances of language are also extremely important, and the interviews reminded scientists to be careful in selecting appropriate, jargon-free language.

In the penultimate ten-minute video, the series tackled ways to discuss ethics. Crucially, the interviewees advised that it was important to stay within the remit of what you know for discussion, and to always put the ethics under consideration in context. They also reinstated the importance of engaging with the public on matters of ethics, since this will serve the best possible outcome for the applications of the emerging new technologies.

The series ends with a case study of 'Scientific Scissors': a resource a family-friendly educational activity developed by the Biochemical Society to help scientists engage with the public. The activity includes a number of games and discussion points aimed to both teach the basic principles of genome editing and stimulate conversation about its ethical implications. Unfortunately there is no real explanation of this within the video itself, so it is advisable to look at the activity resources before watching.

For me, while the lack of an overall narrative or on-camera interviewer created a slower pace, on balance I believe this was effective for its purpose. In a world where demands are constantly being made on our attention, and pleas made for our consciences, it was refreshing to watch a video series where the viewer was allowed to formulate their own understanding in a gentler way.

Given the rather dry production, I would not recommend the series for its entertainment value. However, the series does a good job at suiting its intended purpose, and if you are a scientific researcher seeking guidance on how to engage with the public, these videos will be a useful resource.

7 October 2019 - by James Close 
The National Academy of Sciences – an organisation partially funded by the US government – has removed a video about genome editing from the internet after it came under widespread condemnation from the academic community...
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