Under the microscope: When science took to the streets

Better communications is vital
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The Independent Culture
TOO MANY of us active in the public understanding of science suffer from the misguided convictions that not only do we know what the general population thinks about science, we also know how to communicate with it. A recent natural experiment on public attitudes towards genetics in Switzerland has shown just how important it is that we get this right.

Activists in Switzerland (home to the research laboratories of many big pharmaceuticals companies) collected more than 100,000 signatures and so forced a national vote on biomedical research. This vote had the potential effectively to ban the use of DNA technology to alter the genetic constitution of any organism, and furthermore to stop the release of such organisms into the environment. Also proposed were a ban on patenting genetically modified animals or plants, and that almost all experiments involving genetic modification be stopped. The activists, many of whom were women, had support from more than 70 organisations including Physicians Against Animal Experiments, Swiss Organic Farmers and the Swiss Catholic Women's League.

Polls taken a year before the vote, which happened in June, showed that more than 60 per cent of voters were in favour of the ban, while around 25 per cent were against. Swiss scientists were alarmed by these figures and some 5,000 demonstrated for the right to freedom of scientific research. The spectacle of scientists on the streets of cities including Zurich and Geneva alerted many voters to the grave threat the ban would represent to biomedical research - an area in which the Swiss are world-leaders.

As the vote approached, the battle became quite bitter, with those in favour of the ban bandying images of the population being poisoned by gene-contaminated food, and those against the ban claiming that it would put a stop to all biological research, with serious economic consequences. In academic communities the debate was equally vigorous, with the scientists up against opposition from the humanities. But when it came to the vote, the public completely reversed its initial intentions and rejected the proposal by a large majority - 67 per cent came out against the legislation. More men voted for its rejection than women, but the difference was not that marked (74 compared to 63 per cent), and there was a weakish correlation between rejection of the ban and education levels. So what really determined how the public voted? Why was there such a dramatic reversal? These were the questions I put to my Swiss colleagues.

At the start of their campaign, the scientists were doing very badly - they were unprepared and inexperienced at communicating to the public. However, things improved dramatically when the pharmaceuticals companies organised a public relations exercise, with posters showing sick children alongside scientists working to cure them. Soon, leading academic scientists got involved; they included a Nobel prize-winner (for his work in immunology) who began writing articles for a widely-read tabloid newspaper. Public debates were organised, but the scientists' logic did not seem to be winning against the emotional charm of some of their opponents and those newspapers which insisted on playing on the public's fears about genetics.

The change in voters' behaviour has now been attributed to several factors. Not to be discounted is the inherent conservatism of the Swiss, who are against change unless there are reasons to persuade them that it really is essential. This was compounded by their recognition of the ban's effects on the Swiss economy - if it went through, the pharmaceuticals companies would undoubtedly go elsewhere. Then, it appears, voters began to worry about the extent to which foreign pressure groups like Greenpeace were influencing Swiss affairs. But perhaps most important of all was their direct contact with Swiss scientists, who came into the open. As one of my friends put it, nothing was gained from trying to persuade the public that science is good: the key was to persuade people that scientists as individuals are not bad. It was this direct contact that made the biggest difference. This is a lesson of the greatest importance, that all scientists must consider very, very carefully.