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Let’s talk about Sex

Journalists are mediators. And they are translators. Take me as an example. It is my job as a scientific journalist to translate scientific contents to the public so that people can understand what things like “cloning” and “genetic engineering” are. And, well, I am trying my best and it truly is an advantage for me to be an educated molecular biologist. I do understand scientific subjects as well as the technical terminology of the biosciences.

But what’s about my non-scientific colleagues? If a standard magazine journalists is in duty to write about – let’s say – Dolly the sheep, does he really have a chance to produce something meaningful? It is even hard for him to understand the details … and we expect a founded judgement. This colleague however is a translator to the public. Like a Chinese-English translator who never learned any Asian language and is working with a 1970 edition of a common dictionary (and avoid asking him for the Chinese signs). Taking this into account, can we really be surprised that the public opinion about biotechnology and gene technology is such bad in Europe.

This also had been a major point at the “Biotech in Europe” session of the recent BIOTECHICA BUSINESS FORUM 2002 in Hanover, Germany. Speakers included Crispin Kirkman (BioIndustry Association, UK), Claude Hennion (France Biotech), Christian Suter (BioValley Basel, Switzerland), Rob Janssen (Netherlands’ Biotech Industry Association) and Hugo Schepens (EuropaBio).

During the discussions Christian Suter mentioned that we are missing true science mediators in Europe. He quantified fruitful cooperations between journalists and scientists as lucky exceptions. And others added that there is a completely different communication culture in North America where scientists don’t worry about sitting in a TV shown and propagating their views to the public.

I do agree. We are really missing true translators and mediators of our contents. Where are the colleagues that are able to help journalists to understand? Dear scientists, journalists desperately need you! Help them to translate. Go out, be present and be the bridges crossing the river between scientific knowledge and the society. In my view many American scientists are highly sensitized regarding their role and duty for public understanding that is the base of public opinion. European scientists are much more afraid of being in the limelight of the media. But – honestly spoken – to my opinion it is part of their (publicly financed) job.

Why do so many European scientists avoid the public? Well, they never learned it. Being a public translator for scientific knowledge is not part of scientific education. Many researchers are just not able to translate.

It is a matter of terms … and a matter of relevance. Let me explain what I do mean with the “matter of relevance”. A true scientist talking about the developments in research will never make an absolute statement, like “Newton’s apple will definitely never go upwards”. He is always qualifying and seeing things in relative terms, even when there is just a hypothetical 0.0001% chance for an alternative event. Perhaps, one day, Newton’s apple may go upwards. It does not matter if this is relevant or not, it always will be a possibility. This basic kind of thinking is a result of the scientific knowledge finding process’ structure, that is driven by thesis and antithesis.

But for the average man or woman this “may be” is a sign of uncertainty, in the worst case interpreted as “there is something in it”. The 0.0001%-event has become a true and relevant option. Now, he is awaiting Newton’s apple to shoot up to the stratosphere, exploding there and finally destroying earth’s ozone shield.

As a conclusion, scientists have to learn to reduce, to focus and to rate various options for relevance. People want clear answers, simple explanations and meaningful statements.

Now, let’s talk about the “matter of terms”. Scientists and non-scientists are often using the same words but do speak different languages. Many scientific terms have a different meaning or an additional interpretation for average persons they have not for a scientist. The result is that both are speaking to each other but there is no true communication.

Take the word “sex” as an example. If a scientist is using the word “sex” he usually is thinking about the gender of the organism he is working with – but most non-scientists at first are thinking about something completely different. Another good example would be the word “glauben” that in the German language is used for “to my opinion” as well as for “to believe”. So if biotech managers “glauben” that gene technology is safe, is it their opinion or is it their believe? But let us focus even more towards “genetic engineering” and “gene technology”. For me the German translation “Gentechnik” has no weight. In my understanding the word stands for a scientific method, a lab application. It is not good or bad, it just is. But for an average German citizen “Gentechnik” has an expanded content, it has a negative meaning, it is a bad word, it is used like talking about devil’s kiss. Now imagine a molecular biologist and a politician having a discussion about gene technology. They are talking together … but finally there is no communication. You can observe it on any programme running on an European TV station.

Where are all these communication and public relation agencies serving the Life Science industries? What have they done during the past years? Well, at least they have lost an important battle. They lost the battle for sovereignty over words. And I suppose that they lost because many of them did not really understand the things they were fighting for.

If you want your public relations work being successful within the fields of Life Science and biotechnology it is much more important compared to any other branch of business that you have an in-depth-knowledge about the contents. Biotechnology and gene technology cannot be treated like others. You really have to understand the technologies you are trying to promote. You really have to know the key words and their true meaning as well as their interpretation by interest groups. And never forget that these words and expressions can have various meanings depending on who is using them!

But where is the way out of the dilemma? Very simple: strike back! Use the words in their true meaning. Use them ‘normalized’. And do not use them only on podium discussions but in your daily live. Speak about biotechnology with your family. Speak about biotechnology with your friends. Speak about biotechnology with your colleagues and business partners. Speak about biotechnology with your children and with their teachers. Speak about biotechnology at your breakfast table and at your barber. Speak about biotechnology with your doctor and with his nurse. Speak about biotechnology as it would be the most normal thing in the world. One day it will be. Win back the sovereignty over words! Now!

Revised version of the article “Let’s talk about Sex”, originally published in December 2002 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.

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