January 21, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Gene drives and metaphors
I have been writing about developments in the biosciences for twenty years. In that time, I have covered a wide variety of topics, such as cloning, genomics, the human genome project, the microbiome project, faecal microbial transplants, synthetic biology, epigenetics, genome editing and now gene drive. I was lucky enough to get many reflections on these topics (by me and other colleagues!) published in the appropriately titled journal New Genetics and Society.
The newest addition to this family of articles is one on gene drives – a range of controversial technologies that can potentially be used for the eradication or conservation of animal species – written with Aleksandra Stelmach. It has a certain family resemblance with the other articles, as it too deals with the use of metaphor in framing a particular issue in the biosciences. However, it is also quite different. While the other articles mainly examined media articles on the genetic or genomic topics they covered, this article is based on the analysis of interviews with gene drive experts and practitioners reflecting on their and others’ uses of metaphors.
The article was prompted by emerging findings from a Wellcome Trust funded project, led by Sarah Hartley, aiming to increase understanding of how people communicate about gene drives. Aleksandra carried out 30 interviews with scientists, experts, and NGOs working in sectors or being involved in sectors relating to gene drive research in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
Not remembering metaphors when talking about gene drives
When reading through the interview transcripts I noticed a recurring pattern of answers to the question When reading through the interviews, it was startling to find one standard reply to us asking participants whether they remembered any metaphors used in discourses about gene drive in the media or elsewhere. One phrasing of such an answer is prototypical: “I can’t’, ‘can’t think of any right now” or, even, “I don’t know. That’s a good question. None immediately come to mind” etc.
There may be multiple reasons for this memory loss, such as being put on the spot, not having thought about metaphors before, and so on. But it might also be that there are just no salient metaphors of gene drive around yet, in the media and in general conversation. As one participant said: “If there were [any metaphors] I would probably already have used them.”
Using metaphors when talking about gene drives
Remarkably though, we found that most of the participants, even those saying they don’t remember metaphors, used many metaphors when chatting with Aleksandra about their gene drive communication experiences.
Looking at how participants talked about these experiences when talking about gene gene drive, including using metaphors, also revealed certain patterns. Our interview participants were aware of the severe limitations of the original drive metaphor (which actually relates to a train – you’ll have to read the article); they were sceptical of over-hyped evolution as well as eradication metaphors; they advocated embedding metaphors, if used at all, in precautionary and responsible narratives; and they also wanted future research to study the use and misuse, risks and benefits of metaphor use and avoidance empirically, so that public engagement efforts could be improved based on evidence.
There is more work to be done on all this of course. Science communication is first and foremost a practice, and we need to listen to the voice of practitioners when trying to fathom how to communicate gene drive in general and how to communicate gene drive responsibly in particular.
Nerlich, B., & Stelmach, A. (2022). Gene drive communication: Exploring experts’ lived experience of metaphor use. New Genetics and Society, online.
Metaphors have been crucial in making genetics and genomics public, from the code and the book of life to genetic scissors and gene surgery. A new field is emerging called “gene drive” – a range of controversial technologies that can potentially be used for the eradication or conservation of animal species. At the same time, metaphors are emerging to talk about the promises and dangers of “gene drive”. In this article we use thematic analysis to examine thirty interviews with gene drive science and communication experts, and stakeholders, focusing on how they talk about their lived experience of metaphor use in the context of gene drive communication, including their struggle to remember salient metaphors and their reflections on which metaphors to use and which to avoid. We discuss the significance of our findings for research and practice of responsible science communication.
You can explore my past blog posts on gene drive here
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