What goes on at the Museum of Science Public Forums?

by Kelsey Williford

Each month, the Museum of Science holds an open discussion on an issue related to science policy.  Members of STEPUP have recently begun attending these discussions which are a great opportunity to both learn about a specific topic and about what needs to be considered when developing policy.  The crowd at these forums is composed of scientists, local government workers, concerned citizens, and individuals interested in learning more about a hot topic in science.  As a scientist who values effective science communication to the public, it is inspiring to see such a variety of individuals from the community participating in these events.

What’s in Your Fish?

In March, we discussed the science policy of water pollution and the accumulation of pollutants in fish.  The discussions focused particularly on pollution in Superfund sites, which are areas in the environment that have been contaminated with hazardous substances and are required by law to be cleaned up.  We heard from three experts in the field, first about Superfund sites in the area where water pollution is prevalent, then about risk assessment and the public health aspect of the issue, and finally from a scientist studying mercury levels in fish.  These brief talks were educational and captured the attention of everyone in the crowd despite their backgrounds.  We then participated in group activities with the other people at our table: exercises in role-playing, allocating financial resources, and drafting communication to the public.  The role playing was designed to help us determine how various community members affected by the pollution would want to use funds to improve the Superfund site.  Would the single mother be more interested in R&D or cleaning up the water?  Would the mayor prefer that the money is used to fight legal battles against the company who polluted the water in the first place?  Based on these perspectives, we then came up with a plan on how to use the money to best help the community.

The last activity was deciding what public health statement we would make regarding eating fish from the polluted water.  This was the most interesting part of the discussion for me since my first reaction was to issue the highest level of health awareness and target every individual with it.  However, this activity was eye-opening to how risk assessments impact the different aspects of the community.  While the main goal of public health statements is to protect the health of the individual, it is important to keep in mind how overly cautious statements can cause fear in the community, deter people from moving to that city, and negatively affect people whose livelihoods depend on catching and selling fish.  Overall, this discussion was educational both in terms of learning about how superfund sites are dealt with and how carefully public health announcements need to be thought out.

Editing the Genome: Now we can. Should we?

The topic for the April discussion was how gene editing using the new CRISPR technology should be regulated.  The event began with a scientist teaching the group about how CRISPR works and what the advantages and disadvantages are of this gene-editing technology.  CRISPR is mainly controversial because the technology allows for genetic changes in the germline of an organism so that the inserted gene is passed down for generations.  This means that if you engineer a mosquito, for example, those effects will eventually be passed on to the rest of the mosquito population.  The fact that the technology is becoming accessible enough that anyone can use it poses a challenge for society in determining who has the right to use it.  Does it have to stay in academia and be used only for research purposes?  Can companies begin to use it to generate herbicide resistant crops?  Can it be used in the medical field to treat individuals with genetic disorders?  The activity at our tables focused on choosing a case application of CRISPR and deciding how it should be regulated.  We had to consider whether the technology could be used for the application we chose, whether academia could sell it to companies, and what restrictions would be in place to protect society.

The second speaker of the night was an employee of the Environmental Health Department in the city of Cambridge.  He primarily discussed how research in academia is regulated and how it is important to consider the public’s opinion in scientific matters that have direct effects on society.  Interestingly, a major theme of both talks was the lack of transparency in science.  Science is not effectively communicated to society even though a large proportion of research (at least in academia) is funded by taxpayer money.  Science isn’t very transparent within the scientific community either— due to the competitive nature of funding and publishing, scientists often don’t discuss their work with each other for fear of being “scooped.”  This lack of transparency leads to citizens in the community mistrusting science since everything is done behind closed doors.  The development of technologies such as CRISPR, which have far-reaching effects on everyone around the world, is shedding light on this transparency issue in science.  The discussion of how CRISPR can be used should lead to infrastructure put in place to instigate open conversations between scientists and the public in order to develop solutions that benefit everyone.

In conclusion

Apart from the education on specific issues regarding science policy, the Museum of Science discussions have shown us how to effectively educate people from all backgrounds about topics in science and how to engage the community in discussions about these issues.  These tools will be useful moving forward with our monthly STEPUP discussions and in the outreach events we plan to organize.

To learn more about the events offered by the Museum of Science, please visit their website at www.mos.org/public-events.