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Podcast Review: The Gene Gap - Who decides what should happen next?

30 March 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1041

Why aren't more people involved in the discussion surrounding how genome editing should be used?

The Gene Gap is a new podcast series and multimedia project produced by the Guardian, including a live event that took place in January, (see BioNews 1035) involving a public discussion on genome editing with three experts. 

There are three gene gap episodes, which are each approximately 30 minutes in length. The second episode, the subject of my review, perhaps aligns best with the interests of the BioNews reader. This episode's tagline poses three questions regarding genome editing: Are we well informed? Who holds the power to inform us? And who has the authority to speak for our species and to make decisions?

These are pressing questions given the current state of the technology, which is bursting out of laboratories into broad, applications with social impact, and entering the minds of the public. Not least thanks to the actions of individuals like He Jiankui, who created the world's first genome-edited babies, which inevitably feature in the episode.

The podcast takes a novel approach in attempting to answer these questions, forgoing expert commentary and interview. Instead, a discussion of the topic is public-driven. Discussions are held with four different groups of individuals from across the country, and this programme jumps between these discussions and more detailed interviews with individuals involved.

The series is hosted by a science communicator, Steve Scott, and people from a broad range of backgrounds are involved in the discussion, from farmers in Cumbria, young people in Manchester, individuals from the Black African Caribbean community in Birmingham, and parents who have children with special educational needs in Hertfordshire.

We start in Cumbria, discussing genome editing with individuals who primarily work in agriculture. An interesting starting point given the widespread potential of CRISPR in this industry to genome edit crops and livestock for traits such as improved yield and disease resistance.

The group appears remarkably dismissive of the impact of genome editing, viewing it as a natural progression of selective breeding, which is a refreshing and unusual viewpoint. So far, so good. However, discussions with a veterinarian who is an expert in advanced animal breeding technologies dominate the conversation. To me, he feels strangely close to an expert in a relevant field, considering the 'expert-free' nature of the podcast.

The episode moves to an extended interview with an agricultural professional in an attempt to explore the potential of genetics to the industry. Here I become lost, genome editing is not discussed. Instead, we explore the difficulties farmers face in meeting modern society's expectations. This is an important topic, emotive and fraught with difficulty, but has little relevance, and I struggled to reconcile it with the aims of the programme.

The discussion moves to ChatSS, which is a support group for parents with special educational needs. Conversations are deeply personal and engaging but again have little direct relevance to the genome editing debate, although it comes closer, and fundamental genetics and people's perception of medicine do feature.

I struggled with the first half of this podcast. The discussions lacked focus and deviated too far from genome editing. The conversations that arise are interesting, and raise important points, but shoehorning them into a discussion focusing on genome editing feels forced.

Perhaps I have missed the point. This podcast was designed to be guided by non-experts, thus it may well be the natural shape of an organic debate on genome editing with laypeople. But to me, this was frustrating as the podcast veers off-topic for most of the first half.

The second half of the episode turns things around somewhat. The discussion is more direct and I would advise persevering with the first half to reach the more thought-provoking insights of the second half, of why people don't engage with science.

However, most of the people involved in the discussion had, or were studying for, PhDs. Although not scientists, I don't see this as a cross-section of the general public and once again feel as though they aren't truly forgoing expert opinion, but are instead shifting from the opinions of one set of experts to another.

A closing discussion around the necessity for understanding and clarity of language leaves the episode on a high in terms of relevance, and also nicely highlights a point that BioNews has previously made. (BioNews 920).  

In summary, for me, this podcast falls flat in its attempt to address how genome editing should be used. I did not come away with much of a sense that any of the questions it aimed to address were really explored.

The project, in its own words, intends 'to shift story identification and telling power away from established scientists to the public to recognise their perspectives and legitimacy of those perspectives'. But in executing this, it also shifts the conversation too far away from genome editing to hold my interest. Valid and interesting points are made and constructive discussions are held, but these were in the minority. Perhaps this is intentional. I am unsure.

I do not want to dismiss what has been achieved here; the production quality is high, considerable effort has clearly gone into executing the discussion panels, and the conversations are interesting even if irrelevant to the question at hand. But ultimately, I find it more of an exercise in pushing the envelope of science communication than a truly engaging podcast, which consequently struggled to hold my attention.

So given that, would I recommend it? I would consider it. It is certainly of interest to science communicators. Ultimately, it's a podcast: a format unique for its ease of consumption. If you're bored at home, or cleaning the house, pop it on and see what you make of the conversations. You may well not share the same opinions as I do. I'm a scientist, undoubtedly biased, and the last thing I want to do is further stifle the conversation.

The Gene Gap: Power, Who decides what should happen next?
The Guardian |  19 February 2020
14 September 2020 - by Amarpreet Kaur 
An International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing was assembled by the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Medicine...
17 February 2020 - by Ana Hallgarten 
The Guardian Live's event entitled 'The Gene Gap: 'Who would you trust to edit the human race?', took place on 28 January 2020 at SamsungKX, London...
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