Communication on GM Photosynthesis: Experts Reflecting on the Views of Consumers/citizens

Two groups of experts, working together in BioSolar Cells, aim to develop specific technological GM solutions, for algae biofuels and for crop improvement with a specific focus on tomato horticulture. Communication about their work, with all kinds of publics, is very important to safeguard the potentially very interesting possibilities of GM photosynthesis in addressing present and anticipating future societal needs.

Nature’s laws can neither be amended nor rejected by a referendum, and global change is a consequence of the public ignoring and neglecting Nature’s limitations. However, there are very few natural laws, and most scientific results are not, and will never be, 100% sure. Experts are concerned that what the public desires (what do we want) is unrealistic and that it undermines scientific integrity (what can we do), which makes it difficult for the experts to deal in a serious and respectful way with the fact of value pluralism and the heterogeneity of views in debates by developing a comprehensive view. Since experts are the only ones that have access to key information with respect to the potentially very interesting possibilities of GM photosynthesis in society at an early stage, they want to accept a responsibility towards society by making a serious and respectful assessment and attempt to perform reality checks and judge about scientific integrity, but they develop frustrations about the public failing ‘to understand as they do”. At the same time the public realizes that no expert has a full overview and can be fully trusted. In this BSC public debate project, public knowledge and expertise collected from the focus groups in project C41, from the LCA assesments in project C42, and from the artistic probes for debate in project C43, will be injected into the expert value system by exposing experts convened at scientific “hotspots” (lectures, meetings, workshops, science dinners) to well-founded public opinions in a controlled manner. In this way public knowledge is made available to the expert at the earliest possible stages of research, when they have to take decisions about which direction to follow and what to exclude.

The project will be a success if all of the TBSC groups know how to benefit from public engagement and become effective in including communication with society in the planning of their research. In the first year interviews with GM photosynthesis experts will be conducted and the actual deliberation processes of groups of these experts in research committees, discussion forums will be tape-recorded and transcribed.

Advanced methods for the analysis of such discussion will be used. In the second year group interviews with citizen-consumers will be conducted and the results of the two previous phases will be used as an input for a workshop in which expert visions will be confronted with assumptions and expectations of citizen-consumers.

The work in this core project is performed at the Centre for Methodical Ethics & Technology Assessment of Wageningen UR.

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