Ushering Science through the Media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

I joined other scientist-communicators to talk about science in the media

 After four long days at a conference, all you want to do is board a flight home, crawl into bed, and try to forget how your boss saw you dancing at the open-bar party. But on July 30, 2015, a dedicated group of scientists and communicators rallied at the end of Plant Biology 2015 conference in Minneapolis, MN, for the Standing Up for Science Media Workshop on science and public engagement hosted by Sense About Science USA.

As the 2015 ASPB-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Fellow, I was invited to participate in the workshop and talk about why and how I began pursuing opportunities in science communication. And I eagerly joined my colleagues in discussing ways early-career scientists can improve how science weaves its way into the media.

The media workshop was divided into three sessions, with a corresponding panel of scientists, journalists, and scientist-communicators.

To start, Douglas Cook, a professor at University of California, Davis, made it clear that scientists should be firm about combatting myths and speaking forcefully for evidence-based action. “Science is not democracy,” he said, no matter what the polls say. For effective communication, facts and data are insufficient—people find their own version of the truth. Instead, Cook suggested, look for the values people hold, and see if your work can fulfill those values.

Coming at the issue of how to engage with the public from a different perspective, Sally Mackenzie, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and president-elect of ASPB, felt that a coordinated, repeated message could break through even to opponents of some scientific advance, such as genetically modified (GM) foods.  “Some level of activism is our responsibility,” she said, dispensing with the notion that scientists should remain disinterested observers from their labs.

During the question and discussion period of the session, we discussed the labor force of science communication: should it be advanced by scientists who add on communication, or by dedicated communicators with scientific training? Do you need a Ph.D., or is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient? Do you need to study science at all?

The issue we kept coming back to is whose responsibility is communicating science? In academia, science communication is usually left as an extracurricular activity for overworked professors. That will never compete with efforts made by organizations that are committed to advocacy that goes against science and evidence. For instance, as someone noted Greenpeace—a vocal opponent of GM foods—spends $185 million a year on communication alone [The figure was closer to $211 million in 2013].

And with that, it was time for lunch and group work on what the media gets right and wrong when covering science, which led to the second session for the day. In the journalist panel we heard from Emily Sohn, a freelancer and contributor to the Science Writer’s Handbook, and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio.

To a room filled mostly with scientists, Sohn described how she finds stories, and how scientists can help her get their research to the public. If you are responsive to emails and phone calls from journalists and give clear, concise answers to questions, you might just end up as one of her “Super Sources” – someone she returns to time and again. And though Cook and Mackenzie, as well as several other scientists in the audience, felt that they had “been burned” by sloppy journalism, Sohn tried to make clear that she was on their team: “We’re all trying to get it right,” she said.

Dunbar, who had stumbled into science journalism from a general assignment background, freely admitted that in radio—where four minutes is a lifetime—she has learned that to communicate effectively she needs to cut all but the most basic scientific concepts. “I try to teach my audience something about science,” she said, and then explain just a fraction of the hot new research.

At the end of the panel discussion, the audience was given a chance to pitch their own work to the journalists to see how well they could capture attention for a possible story. In one instance, Sohn and Dunbar helped Don Gibson, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Davis, plan his pitch to journalists on his campaign to put Barbara McClintock on the ten-dollar bill. Their advice: Give a positive message, and make the main point—it’s time to put a female scientist on currency—pop out right away.

And then it was finally time for the last panel, where I joined Karl Haro von Mogel of Biology Fortified; Natalie Henkaus of the Boyce Thompson Institute (which supported the workshop) and soon-to-be ASPB staff member; and Neda Afsarmanesh, Deputy Directory of SAS USA and the organizer of the Media Workshop. We all had scientific backgrounds and we were all in the process of or had already moved into full-time science communication positions.

Henkaus stressed the importance of collaborative communication efforts from the NSF’s Research Coordination Networks, ASPB’s National Plant Science Council, and Cornell’s Alliance for Science (another supporter of the day’s workshop). Von Hogel described how Biology Fortified began as a group blog and morphed into a forceful advocate for biotechnology—and purveyor of cute GMOs. And I got to tell what it’s like to jump straight from the lab into the newsroom, and the importance of funding for training in communication. As the final panel, we had the luxury of longer, casual conversations that conveniently morphed into hor d’oeuvres and drinks. Business cards were exchanged; dramatic reenactments of speeches were staged; theories of science communication were pored over and debated.

My takeaway from the day: Journalists and scientists have a lot in common. They both want to tell others about what they see in the world—what they know to be true—and they both want everyone to be as excited about the story they have to tell as they are.

[This post first appeared on the Sense About Science USA website]

Labeling GMOs

Labeling of GMOs is a contentious topic that has no doubt crossed your radar. It’s certainly beyond the scope of a single blog post. But I wanted to respond briefly to an article I saw recently in NPR’s food blog, The Salt. The article describes how food manufacturers, led by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, are proposing a voluntary labeling standard to the FDA. The catch? In addition to having labeling of GMOs be voluntary (as it currently is in the United States), it proposes to prevent states from issuing their own regulations.

I do not think that labeling GMOs is a useful exercise. Generally, we want to put labels on foods that provide useful information to consumers about the health and contents of the food. I am of the opinion that labeling something as containing GMOs is not providing information about the health of the food nor meaningful information to separate it from non-GMO food. There are no substantial health concerns over genetically modified foods simply because they have been modified by genetic engineering. This is a stance supported by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

This is all besides the fact that there is effectively a labeling standard in the United States already. It’s called Organic. Foods labeled Organic cannot contain ingredients from genetically modified foods. If you are buying Organic food, it is GMO free. If you are buying any other processed food in the United States made with corn, soy or canola oil—in addition to animals fed these products—you are buying GM food. As of 2010, 85% of corn and 91% of soybeans planted in the U.S. were genetically modified. These are the major ingredients both in animal feed and processed foods that line the middle aisles of grocery stores. It includes the corn syrup that’s in everything, soy oil, and a bunch of those seemingly random ingredients like xanthan gum and dextrose. (Organic meat must come from animals fed Organic feed).

This does not include sweet corn. The corn and soy discussed here are “commodity” crops and not typically meant for direct food consumption.

All that said, I don’t really believe the food manufacturers when they complain about the costs of labeling. There is something to be said for the costs of keeping up with the sources of ingredients. But as I mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that if a major food company (think Kraft) is sourcing corn or soy from the United States, it is GMO.

I have two main concerns with the voluntary standards. First, they’re voluntary. Even coming from the position that GMO labeling does not provide particularly useful information, having an industry regulate itself is just a silly exercise. We all know they won’t. Conflict of interest and all that. 

Second, the idea of imposing a ban against state-specific labeling standards seems premature. Yes, the FDA requires nutritional labeling and states cannot override that. And yes, it would actually be costly to coordinate fifty different labeling standards. But one of the great things about the United States is the federalist system that gives states a significant amount of autonomy. That means states can choose to test new ideas and new regulations. It means that marriage rights are extended to gay citizens much sooner than if the House and Senate had to decide on it. And it means that sometimes states go too far and over-regulate. Or list every damn thing as known-to-the-State-of-California-to-cause-cancer. That’s the price we pay for governmental innovation and trial-and-error.

If people decide they want to label GMOs, do it right. Voluntary standards won’t get you anywhere. Most of the time, I think that labeling GMOs would push the debate in a different direction. I wish it wouldn't come as such a big surprise, but I think a lot of people would be shocked to know they've been eating GMOs for a while now. In the United States, GMOs are just food. And the cotton in your shirts. Almost every Hawaiian papaya. The chicken and beef and bacon you eat. The oil you splash in your pan. Maybe people would see that it’s not as fundamental a shift as it is often portrayed. 

The Changing and Static Nature of GMO Coverage

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed two simultaneous trends about media coverage of GMOs. First, a larger proportion of GMO stories highlight and dispute popular myths surrounding GMOs. Second, the comments on these articles and reasons given to be skeptical or wary of GMOs have not appreciably changed.

A recent New York Times article covered a Hawaiian County Councilman’s decision over a vote to ban GMOs on the big island of Hawaii. Although it was oddly somewhat child-like in its presentation of the process (Claim A is brought up. Claim A is disputed. Claim B is considered. Claim B is disregarded…) the tone of the piece was clearly intended to highlight the value of scientific skepticism. That the councilman, Greggor Ilagan, voted against the ban because it was founded on specious arguments portrayed him as a free thinker among a populism-driven council. Naturally, his side lost and the ban was put into effect.

Many of the comments on the NYTimes article mirrored those of the supporters who attended the council hearings in Hawaii. A minority defend GMOs as safe and useful tools. The majority, however, assert their beliefs that GMOs harm their health or their environment.  Anti-GMO positions usually fall into a few categories: Concerns over the health and safety of eating GMOs. Skepticism of biotech companies (read: Monsanto). Ecological concerns. The benefits of alternative agricultural practices. I hope to spend time with each of these topics over the coming weeks and months. Most are blown out of proportion; many are unfounded. Some, however, do come down to personal stance and belief.

The recent changes in GMO coverage appear to stem from a desire by news organizations to avoid false balance. The standard journalistic practice of neutrally informing the public of both sides of an argument is only valid when there are two even sides. When consensus has yet to be reached. When opinions, morals, or ethics are at stake more than facts. The difficult part of covering GMOs as a topic is that this technology encompasses both broad scientific consensus about its safety and opinions about the proper use of GMOs in agriculture. (And that’s all before we get into misconceptions of the facts that influence people’s opinions.) It is difficult to adequately address these different aspects of the public debate surrounding GMOs because they really lie on different planes.

Plant scientists won’t rest easy until wishy-washy opinions stop influencing scientific policy. GMO skeptics won’t be satisfied as long as their opinions are tossed out even once the facts are agreed upon (which, by the way, rarely happens).

New technologies are messy. My view is that a technological advance is neutral. Our applications of a new technology can be positive or negative. We can split the atom and incinerate cities or fuel them. GMOs have been used fairly conservatively thus far and yet through a combination of pretty terrible PR from biotech companies, an anti-corporate mood throughout the country, and public skepticism driven partly by a false dichotomy between natural and artificial, they remain a pariah in the public eye. Hell, at the end of the day, some would-be opponents say it doesn't even matter. (But ssshhh, don’t tell the commenters that).

The debate surrounding GMOs has lately been described as the left’s own version of climate science denial. Sometimes I use that analogy when trying to drive home how one cannot rely on intuition when assessing a new technology. One has to seek out the facts. Certainly no political party is immune to anti-scientific bias and the progressive left has taken up anti-GMO stances for years now. There is no need to equate GMOs and climate change. But there are similarities in the process by which both global warming and agricultural GMOs are attacked. And process matters.

My own anecdotal contribution to this layman’s media coverage comes from Reddit. Reddit, popularly understood to be largely made up of young, white progressives from North America, has taken a rabid anti-GMO stance for years. (The voting system of Reddit allows one to determine which opinions are most popular, reddiquette be damned.) I've often joined these comment threads to defend the benefits of GMOs or point our popular misconceptions about the technology. Usually I am called out a shill for Monsanto. Lovely.

But over the last couple of years, the top comments have increasingly pointed out misconceptions, biases and untruths in the primary article. More reasonable discussions about the benefits and dangers of GMOs have, slowly, beaten out the vitriol. Perhaps the broader shifts in media coverage of GMOs are in fact slowly trickling through the internet and end up as slightly-more-nuanced discussions rather than ad hominem attacks. If only we could get On The Media to be as interested in this particular topic as they are in asserting that NPR isn't biased!

P.S. If Nathanael Johnson at Grist hadn't beaten me to it, a six month adventure of teasing apart the incredibly intricate issues surrounding GMOs would be right up my alley. I’m still catching up with the coverage, but what I've seen so far suggests it is well worth a read. Check it out.   


Lindbergh HS

This morning I had the opportunity to speak at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis County about GMOs. I was invited by an advanced science teacher, Bryan Cintel, after he asked around through the biology department listserv for a guest speaker.
It was fortuitous because their AP biology course was already covering biotechnology and GMOs so I was able to contribute to that unit by giving a scientist’s perspective on the matter. Even though I don’t work on GMOs myself, my work as a plant biologist brings up the topic a lot. And since I went into plant biology because of an interest in developing strong food systems, genetic engineering is a topic I’m always trying to learn more about. I’m the resident ‘plant guy’ to a lot of my friends and family so I’m used to covering everything from plant science to organic farming and Monsanto’s legal team. It just comes with the territory.
But I was excited to present to students after presenting at the Community Garden Summit a few weeks back. The students were very advanced—they had covered the cloning of genes, gene regulation, the structure of DNA and restriction enzymes among other topics. So I was able to focus more on the science and biology behind genetic engineering than I was when presenting to the more heterogeneous crowd at the Community Garden Summit. This was my first time giving a presentation exclusively on GMOs and I was happy to have the practice. I know it won’t be my last!
I borrowed a few slides from my previous presentation but I wanted to make sure I contributed some actual biology that was new to the students. They had learned about genetic engineering in bacteria, but plants are a bit of a different story and I taught them about how we use Agrobacterium to help us transform plants. Or a ‘gene gun’ when we can’t use Agro.
The students had questions ready from an assignment but of course a handful of students in each period spoke up the most and were really interested in the topic, which was great. One girl already knew about Golden Rice, which was a topic I covered in my slides. Of course, some students were interested in the ethics and legal issues surrounding the patenting of genes and whether Monsanto was in the right when they sued some farmers for patent infringement. I always try to make it clear that I’m no expert on Monsanto’s legal issues, but the fact is that I keep abreast of the information as much as I can so I do usually have something to contribute. And the students wanted my opinion on some of the other concerns surrounding GMOs, like the health consequences of eating them. I told them that it was the strong consensus that GMOs are perfectly safe to eat. But I did bring up some of the more legitimate issues that skeptics have with the technology, like the problem of ‘gene escape’ from a genetically engineered crop to a wild relative.
Mr. Cintel asked me to talk a little bit about biotech jobs as well. Although I don’t have direct experience in the biotechnology industry, GMOs and plant science in general are great to talk about in the St. Louis region. We have the highest concentration of plant scientists in the world, largely thanks to Monsanto. But we also have great non-profit institutions like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and of course Washington University. This gave me a chance to talk about the several different ways that students could become involved with science as a career. It’s not only academic research, but it can be industry work or work at independent research centers like the DDPSC. And I told them that a career in science isn’t necessarily limited to those with Ph.D.s. A place like Monsanto should have jobs for all educational levels where you still get to ‘do science’ at a different level.
I had a great time, even though I had to wake up an hour earlier than usual to get out to the school by 8:10. Several of the students were interested in going into science and I told them that Washington University probably has opportunities for them to do work during the summer even in high school. That’s how I got started.
I hope to speak to more students in the future. Maybe I’ll even return to Lindbergh High School to speak next year on a similar topic.
(Topic preview: I was selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference taking place at Washington University from April 5-7. My Commitment to Action continues my outreach efforts to bring plant scientists in the region together with the urban agriculture community. I’ll write about that shortly.)

Community Garden Summit

On Saturday, I spoke with Dr. Terry Woodford-Thomas of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center at the 4th Annual Gateway Greening Community Garden Summit. This was my first opportunity to speak about science with non-scientists in a formal setting. And it went well.

When I reached out to Gateway Greening to gauge their interest in helping me with my own event aimed at bringing plant scientists and community gardeners together, I was invited to speak at the Summit. They also asked me to help them find a professor at the DDPSC to present with me. The title of the talk was "Plant Breeding and Genetics". Although Terry works on science education and outreach full time, we were not quite sure what kind of presentation to give. We knew the attendees would be well-educated but likely without any specific knowledge of the topic. We certainly didn't want to bore anyone to death.

But it's difficult to develop a presentation plan for a group of people you haven't met on a topic you're not an expert on. After all, I have only recently begun studying plants, and I have no background in plant breeding at all. What I did have to offer was a biological background and an overlapping interest in food systems and gardening. And although we knew we had to make the presentation approachable, we also suspected that the people attending our talk--when they could opt instead to attend presentations like "Organic Gardening Methods"--would likely be interested in learning something new and challenging.

We decided to briefly review a history of crop domestication and to cover the basics of plant genetics that make plants unique and interesting, like the prevalence of polyploidy in our crops. Then, in the style of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, we would tell the stories of a handful of crop species. We would discuss how they were bred and how the genetics of these species impacted their roles in our food system.

Terry already had dozens of slides from various presentations given over the years on similar topics. This was my first opportunity to begin collecting such material for future work, so I had to start from scratch. My topics included the interesting genetics of plants and then I would cover the nightshade and brassica families. Terry covered the history of crop domestication and then the cereals--corn, wheat and rice. 

I tried to think of ways to make my part of the presentation as interesting and approachable as possible without making the fatal mistake of condescending to the audience. That was my greatest fear, because I felt it would help confirm the worst stereotypes about scientists. The ivory towers and snotty attitudes and holier-than-thou high-mindedness. Frankly, scientists are only good at their job when they are honest about all that they don't know, although there are certainly individuals who could be reminded of that occasionally.

Nonetheless, without really knowing my audience or having experience with this kind of presentation before, that was the balance I strove to achieve. I wanted to the material to be understandable but to really offer something new to the audience so they felt that their time was well spent.

We had about ten people attend our presentation. As I mentioned earlier, topics like organic gardening methods competed for the same presentation slot, so it was not altogether surprising that we had a small group. Rebecca came along to support us and to learn as well--she was taking notes and asking questions the whole time! Terry and I traded off presenting our own sections and answering questions as we went.

On the whole, I was very satisfied with the presentation. The audience was curious and engaged, although there were certainly some heavy eyelids in the crowd. (I take no offense, I have been on the other end many, many times and sometimes your eyes just won't stay open.) I could sense that the presentation was dry at times and I learned that I needed to prepare more succinct and engaging ways or presenting certain topics, like marker assisted selection and the real significance of hybrid crops versus inbred lines. I believe that our crop-focused sections were the strongest, which was really the intention and is something I believe I will repeat.

The audience asked many great questions, both to clarify our points and to ask after new information. One woman was intensely interested in the gene banks that save germplasm we brought up. Others were curious about how we propagate seedless varieties. We did not discuss genetic engineering at length, but it was brought up and the only real concern expressed from an audience member was over the potential overstepping of Monsanto's legal team.

Our host, a young man (older than me) whose name I unfortunately forget, was very excited about our presentation. At the end he and I spoke briefly and he thanked us for presenting and seemed genuinely happy to have attended. I got extended feedback from Rebecca, but she's understandably biased. On the whole, I am very happy with how the summit went and I look forward to speaking on a similar topic at the Pints 'N' Plants event in June. I think it was a great first step and I intend to take many more

Science in the Garden

What do plant biologists and community gardeners have in common?

It's not the setup for a (bad) joke. It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. I happen to be both a plant biologist, in training at least, and a community gardener when it's warm out. But despite the obvious intersection of an interest in plants, I'm not sure where else they overlap. That's not to say that I think the two are opposed--far from it. But I do think that plant scientists and gardeners don't think about each other a lot. I think they should.

After all, many plant biologists are, like me, gardeners. We certainly all have the requisite plant-in-the-window in our offices. Gardeners and plant scientists often have strongly overlapping priorities: developing a safe, sustainable and abundant food supply. They may approach this from different directions, but I think that's a core value that should bind these unlikely siblings together.

Yet somehow modern culture keeps us apart. Science has become increasingly specialized. My teachers have told me when they were students, a biologist could sit in on another biologist's meeting and keep up. Now that some of the "easy" discoveries are behind us, the new frontier requires deeper, highly specialized knowledge. Sometimes communicating with other biologists about our work can be hard, let alone the general science community. Let alone the public. And because it's hard, and doesn't tend to bring in grant money, communicating our goals and discoveries to the public is put on the back burner. 

Maybe then it's no surprise that one of plant science's largest contributions to modern life--genetically modified foods--is seen as arcane, suspect, even dangerous. Steven Mayfield, who just visited Washington University to talk about using algae in industry, including biofuel, sat with graduate students for lunch. The way he puts it: it's our fault. Scientists' fault. He points out--accurately, I think--that many scientists naively believe that if their work is good enough, right enough, it will diffuse down into the wider culture. It will become known, accepted and lauded. Obviously that's not the case.

Just look at the science behind climate change. For decades now, the scientific consensus has been converging on a clear answer: a human-induced greenhouse effect is warming the planet. And to punctuate that, 2012 was the warmest year ever in the U.S. It was an active campaign by those who stand to lose when we regulate carbon that led to doubt. 

We need to make this a priority. Yet I know many scientists doubt the public's interest or ability to understand their work. They blame journalists for bad stories, the Media for sensationalism and a culture of anti-intellectualism for tarnishing the reputation of Science with a capital 'S'. But the response to this is not to hide in a shell or retreat. The only solution is stronger advocacy for our work, for scientific literacy and for great public education.

I've been pondering all of this because in a couple weeks I will be speaking at the St. Louis Community Garden Summit hosted by Gateway Greening. I'll be giving a presentation about plant breeding and genetics. Fortunately I'll have some help from a professor at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. (Fun fact: according to the DDPSC website, St. Louis is home to the highest concentration of plant biology Ph.D.s in the world. That's thanks to them, WashU and Monsanto). 

I am still working on what to cover. The crazy genomes of plants for sure. How technology can improve conventional breeding. And of course, GMOs. I have been asked to make the presentation purely educational, and not to take a side on any controversial issues. I'll do my best to the respect that. I'm honored to be invited to speak at all.

But GMOs are an important topic. And I don't think the he-said/she-said approach to controversial issues is always valid. On the issue of the health of GMOs--in my experience the main concern of skeptics--there is a very real consensus: Genetically modified foods are completely safe to eat. We've been eating them for decades and they are intensively studied and highly regulated.

I think many factors have contributed to the widespread distrust of this technology. Ad hominem attacks against Monsanto (who might be reigning in the legal team a bit). A bad job of explaining the technology. And I think most importantly: a false dichotomy between natural and artificial.  I think many skeptics feel that the 'soul' of a food is changed more by inserting a single gene artificially than by manipulating hundreds of genes naturally. 

To circle this back to the beginning: I think community gardeners and plant biologists can only gain by coming closer together. Yes, many community gardeners will be skeptical of plant genetic engineering. But with their interest in plants and a strong food supply, they could very well be great advocates for the technology if they were persuaded by its benefits. And yes, plant biologists, like all scientists, can appear lofty and unable to speak in layman's terms. But only by practicing these skills in a supportive and interested environment can they improve.

I have plans for future efforts to bring these groups closer together and I will continue to ask: What do community gardeners and plant biologists have in common? A lot more than they think.