News: AAAS 2012 Annual Meeting News
European Panel Explores the Challenges of Communicating Controversial Science
Debate over crucial issues of public policy often suffer from confusion and polarization fed by the news media and policymakers, making the challenges more difficult to solve. At symposium Saturday at the AAAS Annual Meeting, a panel of European scientists and policy experts urged earlier involvement and more effective use of scientific insight in hopes of achieving more effective outcomes.
In a symposium titled “Exploding Myths on Reactor Security, Harm Reduction and Genetically Modified Organisms,” the speakers came with different areas of expertise, and their arguments were provocative, and they faced tough questions. But all agreed on the need for clear, balanced, and accurate information, especially in times of emergency or social stress. That, they said, could reduce public apprehension and opposition to important new technologies and create a stronger foundation for public policy.
The panel focused on three controversial topics: nuclear power in the aftermath the earthquake and tsunami that decimated Japan's Fukushima power plant; continued strong resistance in Europe to growing and marketing genetically-modified foods; and policies and perceptions on tobacco use and its associated hazards.
The panelists were nuclear power expert Roland Schenkel, former head of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), which serves as the in-house science service to the European Commission; Guy van den Eede, head of molecular biology and genomics for the JRC’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection; and David O’Reilly, scientific director and member of the board of directors of the British American Tobacco Company. The panel was moderated by Patrick Cunningham, chief scientific adviser to the government of Ireland.
Each speaker described ways in which conflict and polarization over an important issue obscures options for resolving conflict and improving existing policy.
For example, Schenkel said, “nuclear power is quite competitive” in the context of modern power generation. It generates a significant proportion of Europe’s power, while producing only minimal amounts of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
But longstanding public worries over nuclear power have been deeply aggravated by Fukushima. What’s often lost in the discussion, Schenkel said, is that the Japanese reactors were poorly managed and the Japanese government had little actual authority over the plant’s operations, while obvious mistakes in reactor siting, control, and safety systems contributed to the disaster.
At Fukushima, he added, the reactors suffered from “a lack of state-of-the-art safety systems, and why they were not retrofitted is not understandable.” Also, the danger from tsunamis was well- known, even centuries ago. Schenkel showed a photo of a old stone marker—many of which are found in the area—which indicated the reach of tsunami waters in times long past. The markers served as history’s warnings against building in the area.
The disaster and the resulting social displacement have been a global setback for nuclear energy, Schenkel said. And yet, he added, to replace nuclear power soon with solar, wind and other sources of clean energy “is today almost impossible.”
As for genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—specifically plants and animals—van den Eede pointed out that the long-standing opposition among some groups “misses the profound interconnectivity between decades-long advances in science and addressing global challenges in addressing in climate, energy, agriculture and health.” And, he said, the GMO story in Europe, versus other regions of the world, lays bare how government decisions are ultimately political—with science (being) just one element in decision-making.”
O’Reilly said similar concerns extend to issues of tobacco science. While cigarette use is declining in Europe and the United States, he said, it is rising in China and India. The question arises: Should research explore ways to grow tobacco or make tobacco products that are less dangerous than today’s tobacco and products? But the current polarized environment makes such “harm-reduction” approaches all but impossible, he said.
Carl-John Sundberg, a communications expert at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, was a discussant at the panel. He suggested that in the storm of conflicting information that surrounds many problems—especially disasters such as Fukushima—“information and misinformation are instant” as stories get transmitted worldwide in seconds. Once simplistic or erroneous news is transmitted, it has an impact on policy and public opinion. And the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.
As a bottom line, the scientists called for the scientific community to pursue clarity in its communication to foster deeper public understanding of issues that, while complex, may be of global significance.
Copyright © 2013. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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