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Transparency is Essential in Science Outreach and Advocacy

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JQBiNA_iEric Sachs, Ph.D., 
Science and Policy Engagement Lead, Monsanto Company
@EricSachsPhD

Public and private sectors, together, have a role to play in communicating about science and technology to society.

Science is all around us.  It helps us tackle problems, examine risks and benefits, and identify new and better ways to do things.  Science also can enlighten us, bewilder us, and even scare us.

Communicating science is critically important but can be challenging.  Scientists can disagree and when presented with opposing viewpoints, the public can be confused or misled. Understanding complex scientific matters, such as whether GMOs have a place in agriculture and our lives, let’s face it, is difficult.

In my role at Monsanto, I communicate about science to diverse audiences, particularly about the science of agriculture and its social, economic and environmental impacts. In particular, I focus on communicating with people about GMOs. I get asked a lot of questions.

Why do we need GMOs?  What are the benefits? Don’t they pose a risk to the environment? Are they safe to eat? I am a plant geneticist with decades of experience in the lab and in the field but also lean on other scientists to point me toward answers based on robust evidence.  I also build relationships with public sector scientists engaged in science communication to society, so that, together, we can help to explain the science of modern agriculture to the public.

These scientists generally believe as I do that providing for our future means helping farmers achieve better harvests while using water, land and other resources more efficiently.  Innovations in agriculture are helping to increase soil health, conserve water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand habitat for monarch butterflies and honey bees.

As citizens and as scientists we care about these issues.  Whether we work at public universities or private agricultural technology companies, we routinely work cooperatively and in parallel to communicate about scientific innovations to society, and to engage in policy debates in order to contribute our scientific knowledge and experience.  We take this responsibility seriously on behalf of our families, friends, and society at large.

Working together, public and private sectors have a role to play in communicating about science and technology to society.  This helps to ensure better decision-making and appreciation of innovations that can benefit society.  And scientists have a responsibility to do it in a transparent way. Transparency is essential in each and every situation where any scientist, whether in the public or private sector, is engaged in science outreach and advocacy.

Last October I wrote about why Monsanto works with public scientists and explained how we provide grants to public scientists for research and for public education and outreach.  My intention was to shed light on the potential for conflicts of interest and bias when money is involved.  I wanted those asking questions to understand that the vast majority of scientists working in universities and in companies are ethical and passionate about science and innovation.

Financial support in and of itself is not sufficient to conclude that advocacy is biased.  A closer look at funding sources for actors on all sides of a policy debate will quickly show that financial support alone is not evidence of bias.  Of course, to ensure public policy forums lead to sound policy, potential conflicts of interest and sources of bias need to be identified, and all communication with the public and with policy makers must be transparent.

In policy forums where new innovations with potential benefits for society are being discussed, such as driverless cars, cloud technology, clean energy and GMOs, it’s important to rise above the rhetoric and focus on the real issues.

Attempts to attack and silence scientists does not serve the public good. It does not advance research and innovation. It does not help the public consider the benefits and risks of science and technology.  It does not move us forward toward better approaches for feeding a global population sustainably.  Listening and learning from scientists can lead us to greater awareness and broader perspectives.

Transparent, scientifically sound and evidence-based communication serves the public good.  Without clear, understandable and reliable information, the communication environment becomes polluted and evidence and understanding are obstructed by distorted information masquerading as facts.  Better science communication will lead to better understanding and enable better decision-making.  Decision-making that is transparent, considers appropriate evidence, and is not paralyzed by conflicts of interest and perceived bias will deliver important benefits for all of us.

Science impacts everyone and we depend on understanding it and learning from it to improve our lives and the planet.

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