Report on Ethics: Recommendation #3
Table of Contents
Each NABC institution should include information on ethical issues in its public education programs on biotechnology.
When trying to reach a non-scientific audience, education about the ethics of biotechnology must be part of a larger effort that covers such basic questions as what is biotechnology and how is it being used. My survey research over the last five years shows that most people have little or no awareness of food production in general, much less biotechnology. What people have heard about biotechnology is more in terms of the applications to human health care. As a result, the complex and controversial ethical issues related to the human genome project, privacy issues, and manipulation of human DNA will be much more salient and interesting to the vast majority of people than will ethical aspects of agricultural biotechnology (with the exception of ag scientists and farmers).
The important implications of biotechnology call for an integrated national strategy for Extension education and citizen involvement. Such a commitment to education about biotechnology represents a challenging task. Providing information about biotechnology is part of a broader communication challenge. We must also listen to consumers and other decision makers to monitor their attitudes and information needs. Open and ongoing discussion about biotechnology needs to be fostered among all parties involved in the food production and distribution system from the manufacturers of the products to the ultimate consumers of the food. This process must involve a broad representation of groups.
Public Education Objectives
Education, broadly defined, should aim to provide people with the information, perspectives, and decision-making tools necessary to facilitate informed decisions about alternative foods, including those produced through biotechnology and those produced through conventional means. The overall goals of biotechnology education should be to 1) foster informed public and private decision-making by providing timely and balanced scientific knowledge, and 2) provide opportunities for interested parties to dialogue about public policy issues related to the use of biotechnology. The Committee believes that informing the public about ethical issues, debates and conflicts is a component of this educational process. These goals suggest three process objectives:
- Collect, evaluate, and catalog relevant educational materials about the ethical aspects of biotechnology. Available educational materials should also be assessed to determine the need for new materials. Additional materials should be developed as new food products become available and as new issues arise. This objective also suggests an ongoing commitment to social science research, including consumer studies, public policy analysis, program evaluation, and social impact assessment.
- Develop and implement innovative mechanisms for education and information programs that meet identified needs of specific target audiences. This would include: development and dissemination of publications and audiovisual materials; special events (such as training sessions, public forums and symposia); point-of-purchase materials; and expert advice to media and other opinion leaders.
- Establish an interdisciplinary network of scientists, ethicists, educators, and decision makers who can design and implement programs, as well as provide timely and expert information on a variety of topics. They should be ready and willing to address ethical issues in a balanced and credible manner. This referral network should include representatives from universities, government agencies, industry and consumer groups.
Education about biotechnology will be most effective through a two-step approach to communication. Such an approach recognizes that most people rely on opinion leaders for information in order to form their opinions about an issue. Educational programs should focus, at least initially, on providing information to selected groups of opinion leaders. One of the important target audiences includes members of the media and other communicators. Some media representatives, such as science writers, may already have the basic science background to understand and cover biotechnology in a credible manner. However, other media representatives (including general assignment reporters, food writers, and editors) would benefit from improved access to timely information and approachable experts. Teachers, Extension agents, and other educators will also be important audiences for educational programs, especially those that cover ethical issues. Clearly, the need for programs targeted to opinion leaders must also include the target audiences typically identified for agriculture and food science communications: food industry leaders, farmers, policy makers and representatives of public interest organizations.
Cooperative Extension provides a model for extending information and technology to users, and the best extension programs also inform scientists and research administrators of user feedback and problem solving needs. However, it is not clear that the extension model for "two-way communication" between researchers and the users of technology is the appropriate model for informing scientists about public attitudes towards biotechnology and especially toward ethical issues. Food consumers and the public at large have few precedents for interacting with extension personnel in the way that producers do. The Committee acknowledges the need to find better ways of listening and agreed that improving our listening ability is crucial to the ethics mandate in several respects. It is crucial to improving our understanding of ethical issues, and may itself be one of the key ethical responsibilities that we must endeavor to discharge. However, Committee discussions produced relatively little in the way of programmatic suggestions for accomplishing this objective. This may be an area where the Executive Committee will wish to appoint a special ad hoc committee to generate suggestions and recommendations.