June 17, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Gene drive in the press: Between responsible research and responsible communication
Gene drive is a controversial genetic engineering technique that allows scientists to modify genes so that they quickly spread through a population without following the typical rules of heredity; this can include genes that are of no benefit to the plant or animal involved.
Research into gene drives has accelerated since 2015 when another new technology, gene editing, made it easier to implement gene drives. Gene drives can be used to manage mosquito populations in order to eliminate malaria or to eradicate pests or non-native species. No gene drives have been tested in the wild so far, as there are concerns about impacts on humans, animals and environments. So far, there has not been much media attention to gene drives.
Communicating gene drive
I have been part of a Wellcome Trust funded programme of research dealing with gene drive communication, with Sarah Hartley as PI and Aleksandra Stelmach as research fellow. As part of this project, we have carried out an analysis of press coverage in the US, UK, and Australia (between 2015- and 2019), published here.
In this post I want to talk about one aspect of the media analysis that intrigued me. When looking at what the press had to say about gene drive, I detected two conflicting trends of reporting. On the one hand, articles report about gene drive scientists and how they grapple with issues around risks and benefits and try to stress the importance of precaution, responsibility, transparency, and openness. On the other hand, articles report on gene drive science and its potential applications and here writers fall back on a range of classic and rather sensationalist genetic and genomic metaphors and a range of classic and contested infectious disease or pest control management metaphors.
These two trends or two discourses, one of caution, the other of what one might call carelessness, are quite entangled with each other but neither journalists nor scientists seem to be aware of how and when they might contradict each other.
This has important implications not only for communicating gene drive, but also for the communication of emerging science and technologies more generally, where scientists and journalists will have to grapple again and again with a novel focus on responsibility, especially responsible innovation, and the way that novelty is conveyed through (responsible) language use.
Responsible research and innovation
Responsible research and Innovation, or RRI, has been promoted by social scientists and science research funders since around 2010. In this context, and aware of potential future controversies, the gene drive community, a loose group of scientists (e.g. molecular scientists, entomologists, modellers), funders and supporters of the research began to discuss the promises and dangers of gene drives early on, since around 2014.
Prompted by this proactive community, core research and ethical discussions started to be reported in the press and even the entertainment industry, featuring in late night comedy shows and the Netflix docu-series ‘Unnatural Selection’ (Netflix, 2019). Here we can already see the type of tension I want to focus on in this blog post, between the representation of responsibility on the one hand and the use of potentially inflammatory language like ‘unnatural’ in the representation of science and its use.
Responsible science communication
Questions about how to communicate science responsibly are not new. However, in the context of RRI a new focus on responsible science communication has emerged and is seen as central to responsible research (see McLeod and Nerlich, 2017 for an overview). Researchers are encouraged to think carefully about the goals they want to achieve with their messages, be transparent about them and to reflect on the use of language, including the ethical use of metaphors.
Metaphors are essential for every aspect of science, especially in the life science (see Andrews, 2021), from theory building to science communication, as they foster understanding of complex issues by referring to concepts and objects from everyday experience. However, while metaphors enable communication, they have to be handled with care, that is, responsibly, as they influence public attitudes and might counteract messages of responsibility and transparency. Let us now look briefly at how communicating responsibility clashed with communicating exciting findings about gene drives.
Discourses of humility
Scientists were the main source of both hopeful statements about the potential benefits of gene drives and warnings about their risks. Not only did the scientists warn about the potential dangers, but they also advocated an open and transparent way of conducting research, as well as the need for public engagement and consent for its potential deployment.
Neither the scientists promoting a responsibility discourse nor the journalists reporting on it employed interesting metaphors. A rare exception is a metaphor used by a key promotor of responsibility discourse, Kevin Esvelt (2018), who argued that openness, or as he called it metaphorically ‘sunlight’, was the only way to dispel fears about this new technology.
Discourses of hubris
This innovative discourse of responsibility clashed to some extent with metaphors and other rhetorical devices used to explain gene drives, their potential applications, and their risks.
Old-fashioned metaphors were deployed when talking about this emerging science (revolution, breakthrough) and when trying to explain gene drives. In this case metaphors were imported from overly hyped discourses of the mastery over nature that we can achieve through genomic research, especially gene editing. There was talk of ‘rewriting the code of life’, ‘editing life’ or ‘editing nature’, even ‘sculpting evolution’ or ‘bending evolution to our will’. There was also talk of ‘selfish genetic elements’, a long-standing jargon term used in biology which can however take on different connotations when used unexplained in the press. Some articles also referenced crash drives and X-shredding… which sounds alarming. Journalists played with fire when playing with the sexual connotations of gene drive metaphors, especially when they talked about ‘genetic sex change for mosquitoes’ or ‘eradication by sex’.
More alarmingly, some scientists and then journalists talked about ‘supercharging a genetic chain reaction’, evoking, rightly or wrongly, disaster scenarios of nuclear proportions. Representatives of NGO’s in particular cherished disaster metaphors, such as ‘gene bomb’.
Such metaphors highlighted themes of eradication and control over nature, as well as the power of science and scientists, especially when it comes to the eternal ‘war’ on diseases and their perpetrators, animals. Here we find that persistent conceptual metaphors of war and battle are almost unavoidable. As we know from the covid pandemic, we always wage war on disease, which in the case of gene drive can be malaria or Zika or dengue etc. War holds the promise of ‘eradicating’ diseases or pests, whatever the collateral damage may be.
Overall then, gene drives were discussed in two distinct forms in the press, by both scientists and journalists. Issues of responsible research, transparency, caution, and public dialogue were actively promoted in a discourse of humility. This discourse of humility clashed in the coverage with a discourse of hubris relating to both the basic science promising to edit nature, and the application of science, promising to control nature and disease.
There is a danger then in science communication, that while aiming to promote responsible innovation, the temptation is to fall back on rather irresponsible metaphors for innovation in science, for scientific power and control, and for disease management.
When talking about exciting new developments in science, scientists have to use metaphors to make the unfamiliar familiar. When writing about exciting new developments in science, journalists have to use metaphors, clichés and even hyperbole if they don’t want to lose their readers. But while metaphors and stories are unavoidable in science communication that does not mean one should avoid thinking about how they are used, in what context they are deployed, how they may be understood, that is, try to engage in responsible science communication. This is especially important in a context when the values of responsibility, transparency and openness are high on the scientific agenda.
Scientists who want to act responsibly might therefore want to think about the media ecosystem into which some of their own metaphors are released, that is, think not only about the consequences of their actions but also the consequences of their talk. Journalists might want to reflect on the quite stale but still sensationalising metaphors they generally resort to in order to convey what gene drive technologies are and what they can do, and on the ethical and political implications they may have. Members of NGOs might want to think about some of the fear metaphors they tend to use. All stakeholders in the news cycle share a responsibility for engaging in responsible communication and not only for engaging in responsible research.
Epilogue: This will be my last blog post on gene drive. If you want to read other posts on the matter, you can have a look here, If you want to know how experts use metaphors in real life when communicating gene drive, have a look here.
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