June 24, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Talking about gene drive

In 2019 I became a co-investigator on a project led by Dr Sarah Hartley at the University of Exeter. The project was funded by The Wellcome Trust and was called: “Talking about gene drive: An exploration of language to enable understanding and deliberation in Africa, Europe, North America and Australasia”.

The team

The international team included Sujatha Raman, Australian National University (formerly University of Nottingham, Institute for Science and Society), Jason Delborne, North Carolina State University, George Openjuru, Gulu University, University of Makerere, Brigitte Nerlich, University of Nottingham, and Katie Ledingham, University of Exeter, and Lucy Carter at CSIRO. The PI was Sarah Hartley (also formerly University of Nottingham, Institute for Science and Society; and, like Sujatha and myself, once part of the Making Science Public team).


In this collaboration between researchers in the UK, Australia, the USA and Uganda, we used a comparative case study research design to map and understand the language and terminology employed to explain gene drive across four cases and three species: Uganda (mosquitoes), Australia (cane toads), USA (mice) and UK. We used media analysis, interviews and focus groups to explore different narratives, stories, metaphors and analogies and examine cultural differences in order to develop an independent and shared understanding of how people talk about gene drive, as well as the usefulness and limitations of different ways of talking.

This is important, as decisions involving the potential future use and governance of gene drive technology will require meaningful, empowered and culturally relevant dialogue among and between stakeholders and communities.

Gene drive is a complex science and stakeholders are already using language to advance their respective interests. Emerging empirical work suggests that the narratives, stories, metaphors and analogies used to talk about gene drive may be more important than technical vocabulary.


Sarah has summarised what we learned in the following way: “Our media analysis reveals a new focus on responsibility in media reporting emanating from the gene drive community. This new focus builds consensus around gene drive by emphasizing the moral authority of the scientific community through the evocation of moral attributes, especially scientific responsibility, caution, transparency and commitment to democratic values. This new focus suggests scientists are seen as part of society, working with publics, listening to their views and acting on them.”

We are in the process of analysing the interview and focus group data.


Nerlich, B., & Stelmach, A. (2022). Gene drive communication: exploring experts’ lived experience of metaphor useNew Genetics and Society, 1-20.

Russell, A. W., Stelmach, A., Hartley, S., Carter, L., & Raman, S. (2022). Opening up, closing down, or leaving ajar? How applications are used in engaging with publics about gene driveJournal of Responsible Innovation, 1-22.

Stelmach, A., Nerlich, B., & Hartley, S. (2022). Gene Drives in the UK, US, and Australian Press (2015–2019): How a New Focus on Responsibility Is Shaping Science CommunicationScience Communication44(2), 143-168.


Stelmach A, Nerlich B, Hartley S 2021 ‘Gene drive technology in the UK, US and Australian press: Exploring tensions between responsible research and responsible science communication’. Paper presentation at the Public Communication of Science and Technology conference, University of Aberdeen, 25 May.

Stelmach A, Nerlich B, Hartley S 2020 ‘Waging a war against pests and diseases: Responsible communication and ‘gene drive’ metaphors in the American, British and Australian press, 2015-2019’. Paper presentation at the Institute for Science and Society seminar series, University of Nottingham, 18 November.

Blog posts

I also wrote a plethora of blog posts about gene drive, focusing in particular on language, metaphor and ethics, which you can explore here in the archive of gene drive posts on the Making Science Public Blog.

This post relates specifically to the project aims:

Gene drive in the press: Between responsible research and responsible communication

Image: Needpix.com: Collaboration



Posted in biotechnologygene drivegenomicsLanguageMetaphorspublic engagement with science