This was the first event organised by the European Commission's High Level Group on biosciences, established in April this year by Philippe Busquin, the Commissioner for Research. It kicks off a series of discussion forums to encourage leaders of the life sciences communities to engage in debate with various stakeholders.
The high level group on life sciences' mission is to provide Commissioner Busquin with expert advice on life sciences and technologies as well as determine the current state of knowledge in the life sciences and advise on imminent developments of significance in the field. As scientists around the world announced the near-conclusion of the human genome project this summer, the high level group on life sciences were planning the recent forum "to debate with an open mind and with respect to cultural differences, the influence of an unprecedented access to genome information in economic growth, quality of life, and fundamental human values".
Essentially, the high level group's members aimed to stimulate scientists to communicate better with society, which was represented at the conference by politicians, and industrial and social leaders. If certain lessons could also be drawn on the science and society dialogue to inform the Commission's forthcoming communication on the topic, highlighted at a major conference in Brussels only weeks before, so much the better.
"The scientific progress and industrial exploitation of human genome information are critically perceived by the public and by policy makers. An exchange between leading scientists, industrial leaders, politicians, non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives, media experts and further representatives of society interested in the beneficial and responsible application of human genome information is needed to start an informed public debate", explained the Commission.
Representatives from all these different areas took part in the event, which was opened by Commissioner Busquin. Discussion platforms focused on health, food, environmental, and ethical issues. Philip Campbell, editor of Nature Magazine chaired the event's round table discussion. David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and consumer protection, equally participated, emphasising the increasing importance of developments in genome research on policy making across the board.
Speaking at a press conference during the event, Commissioner Busquin stressed the role of the media in communicating science to the man on the street. "The role of the high level group for life sciences is not one of scientific interchange but to steer a broader debate with the public. What sort of dialogue can we have with citizens and what dialogue do they actually expect?" he asked.
"European citizens are increasingly being asked to decide whether they accept the many various products of genetic technologies", added Axel Kahn, chairman of the high level group on life sciences. "Citizens must be informed. They must be able to participate in the debate and it is central to democracy that people precisely know what they are being asked to decide about. We want to get beyond this and break down criticism that Europe does not communicate enough with the public."
Participants in the debates during the conference echoed these sentiments, agreeing that another major factor affecting the European public's attitude to genetics research was the broad diversity of cultures and religious attitudes. "It is certainly not the Commission's intention to try to harmonise the attitudes of Europeans to genetic engineering", stressed Commissioner Busquin, but he added: "We are talking about science in the worldwide view. Regardless of one's national view, goods are circulating, so we need to look at European issues with an open mind. You have to have a dialogue or a clear framework."
The concern that scepticism of food biotechnology is hindering research in human health and the environment also emerged during the conference, with many agreeing that as genetics is important for every biological system, efforts should be made to ensure that discussions are not focused so much on food biotechnology. But manipulation of DNA in the food we eat is not the only aspect of biotechnology that concerns citizens, since many are worried about the long-term health effects of "tampering with nature" and the possibilities for eugenics.
This is one of the major challenges facing the biosciences high level group. Professor Kahn stated: "Members of the panel have been invited for being excellent communicators of science, we have to try and ensure there is a natural flow of communication between scientists and the public." So why hasn't the Commission put this challenge to a group of media experts? "Unless scientists go out to the public, it is not at all the same", explained Professor Kahn.
"You would not request politicians to talk to the public through media advisors. It is crucial to break down the myth of the scientist working away to his own ends in an ivory tower. We really should convince the public that we are made out of bone and flesh and that we have the same problems as the public." The high level group on biosciences is however more than happy to organise a meeting with communication experts representing all the Member States.
Many theories about why there is so much distrust of genetic engineering among the public were debated during the two-day event. During their discussions, participants will have considered the differences in cultural attitudes to science, to gaps in the European education systems which leave many scientists incapable of speaking about their subject in everyday terms, at how the culture and methodology which allow research to be considered "science" does not fit comfortably with the often sensational and increasingly demanding news values required by the media.
"This conference is the beginning of a debate to identify the issues that hinder it. We want to identify the bottlenecks and hot issues", stated Axel Kahn. Only then will the high level group be in a position to suggest action. "We need to start a dynamic process. The important thing is to put science back into the non negative aspect."
Closing the meeting, Commissioner for consumer protection and food safety, David Byrne, joined the call for a dialogue between all of society. "We need to distinguish ourselves from the emotional battlefield and debate the role of the life sciences. Scientists have to come forward and be open and transparent about the kind of work they perform. They must be prepared to answer questions from the public regardless of whether they think them uninteresting or ignorant." He welcomed the increasing inclusion of science communication courses at many universities.
"This is only a first stage", added Commissioner Busquin as he stressed the importance of a dialogue at the European level. "Of course the Commission does not want to monopolise the debates but we do want to catalyse them." More information about the first European Biosciences Summit is available at the Genetics in Europe home page. For more details on the biosciences high level group, you can read the VMW June 2000 article European Commission to appoint biotechnology high level group as expert advisers.