Science, Fear, and the Communication Game

Science, Fear, and the Communication Game

Timpson: Welcome to the panel, “Science, Fear, and the Communication Game.” I’m Theral Timpson, and I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to do this topic. I think it’s great. We’ve been hearing some science communication all day long and to have a panel that focuses on that itself is farsighted. So, when they asked me to do this panel, I saw the word “game” in the title, and I said, “Yeah, I’m in. Let’s have fun,” so that’s what we’re going to do today.
When you talk about the communication game, it comes with many players, but we live in a great day for science, huh? I mean, we have a President who’s pro-science; he just had the science camp there at the Whitehouse. How about the Precision Medicine Initiative? I mean, this is a really, really good time for science. Okay.
There are, though, the uneducated, and we don’t know what to do with them. And then there are the educated and we don’t know what to do with them. I mean, seemingly normal, educated people here in the Bay Area not vaccinating their kids. What went wrong there? That’s really something. So that’s something we’re going to get into today.
There’s other players, there’s journalists. We have a couple award-winning journalists here on the panel today, so it’s scientists and laypeople, it’s scientists interacting with journalists. If you were here earlier, we heard in the stem cell talk, at the beginning of that talk, how Keith Olbermann had been promoting this stem cell cure which was totally unscientific—so scientists have a bit of an antagonistic relationship with journalists sometimes.
And then there are scientists with other scientists, and so this past week we’ve been following this, there’s been this debate going about modifying the human germline. So I guess there were rumors that people were actually trying this on people. What do we mean by modifying the germline? Not your germs. Actually your sperm and egg cells, so that the genetic modification continues in other generations. So there were rumors this was going on, so a bunch of scientists came out and published in the good old journals, “Nature” and “Science” and said, “Hey, we’re not ready for this. This is too close to designer babies. We’re getting uncomfortable.”
So even in the science crowd, among scientists, science communication is a real challenge. It’s tough. But luckily for us, we have four great communicators here to talk about some of these issues, and I would like to introduce them.
So, right here we have, to my left is Erika Check Hayden, a veteran journalist—14 years at “Nature?”
Hayden: Something like that, yes.
Timpson: “Nature” magazine?
Hayden: Yes.
Timpson: You’re up for, or you’re receiving an award next month, for Best Reporting.
Hayden: That’s right—for Ebola coverage that I did last year. I traveled to Sierra Leone and reported on the epidemic, so I’m getting two awards from the Association of Healthcare Journalists for that work, which has been really fulfilling, and just a really good look at covering stories that haven’t been covered, about who’s been doing kind of the bulk of the work on that epidemic—and talk about an example of communication and its impact.
Timpson: Right, so we’re going to get into that. Congratulations on the award.
Hayden: Right. Thank you.
Timpson: To your left, Kristen Bole, who is an Associate Director of Public Relations at UCSF, in the life science area. And Kristen is the author of some papers which are really important recently, just came out—and article on—“The Sugar Papers,” so I hope we can get into that. Ryan Bethencourt is a co-founder at Berkeley BioLabs, and now you’re Managing Director at Indie.Bio labs.
Bethencourt: Yep.
Timpson: And on his LinkedIn account, Ryan says, “I want to impact a billion people.”
Bethencourt: That was inspired by my old boss, Peter Diamandis, so.
Timpson: I like that.
Bethencourt: Yeah, so it was a little inspiration.
Timpson: Ellen Jorgenson is here and you are the co-founder of Genspace, which is a community lab in New York City. And Ellen’s team last year won an award from the iGen competition, a synthetic biology competition.
So, welcome to all of you. Let’s jump in. As we get going, I just want to ask from the audience, by raise of hand is there anyone here who is against vaccines? Okay, I figured we were pretty much preaching to the choir, right? But that’s interesting, that’s part of it, is the question of audience and who we’re talking to. So I want to start with a question of audience and I’m going to ask all four of you—what is your ideal audience, and what is your dream interaction with them?
Let’s start with you, Ryan, because I already gave a hint at what you’re—
Bethencourt: Yes, so I try to talk to as broad an audience as possible and that also means I end up talking to a lot of people who are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, anti-climate change. And some people are open to discussion and some are not at all. And it’s interesting, only recently—so I do this, my Facebook is public, my Twitter is all public, and I write kind of controversial articles. For Techonomy I wrote, basically, “Ubiquitous BioTech in a Time of Ignorance,” and I got a lot of heat for that.
Bole: It was a great article.
Bethencourt: Did you like that?
Bole: Yes.
Bethencourt: Okay. So I actually got unfriended by a few of my friends.
Timpson: Unfriended?
Bethencourt: Unfriended, yes.
Timpson: The worst thing that can ever happen.
Bethencourt: Yeah, yeah, it was basically like, “You’re calling us ignorant”—and I’m vegan, so there are a lot of vegans who are anti-GMO, right? And interesting enough—and I found this out as a result of the article—there are a lot of vegans who are anti-GMO and anti-vaccine, which kind of shocked me. I started to see these nonsense shares, like, “Bill Gates is killing kids in India,” and things, with his vaccines. I started to see, I’ve seen, like, an uptick in this type of stuff.
Timpson: So what’s your ideal interaction with as big a crowd as possible?
Bethencourt: As big a crowd as possible, and I go head-on.
Timpson: Head-on?
Bethencourt: Yeah, so we—we’ll disagree. We’ll go straight in, and I’ll go—there will be an article where someone disagrees, I do this with all sorts of groups, and I argue from a logical point of view, non-emotionally, but I argue with them. And then they attack me. I’ve been accused of being paid by Monsanto a bunch of times. I’m still waiting for the check.
Jorgensen: Aren’t we all?
Bethencourt: Yeah, right? It’s—at Berkeley—that was fun, talking about GMO in Berkeley. You know, I’ve had people with, like, they were almost like—they were furious that we were talking about GMOs in Berkeley.
Timpson: That you were talking about them?
Bethencourt: Yeah, yeah. I’m pro-GMO, pro-vaccines. I’ll inject myself. I think we should do more of it, and I like Crisper, right? I think we’ll start modifying, hopefully one day, start modifying the human body.
Timpson: Okay. All right.
Bethencourt: Yeah. So, yeah.
Timpson: Ellen?
Jorgenson: Well, I have a two-pronged approach for my ideal interaction and I’ve actually actualized it. One is, I gave a TED Talk—TED Global 2012—that has over a million views, so 1,000 more times, and I’ll get to a billion, right?
Bethencourt: Yes. [LAUGHS]
Timpson: But a million, that’s really great.
Jorgenson: Yeah. And I always get feedback from that, people that say that I’ve inspired them to try and start a lab of their own, or try to—so, kind of that big reach through the media of getting people aware that this stuff is becoming more accessible, and it can be used for really, really worthwhile purposes, and the innovation is going to drive a better life for everyone. That’s the sort of thing that I want to communicate, and the media are good at communicating that part of it, if they don’t go down the half-pipe of doom, of save the world/kill the world, save the world/kill the world.
Timpson: Okay, but you feel like, the mainstream media is good at communicating the newest innovation and how it might—
Jorgenson: Yeah, so you can get the story out of how exciting it is, and because we’re in this weird space, where we’re doing something in an unconventional way, we get a lot of chance to get up and talk about this stuff, when the average synthetic biologist, or scientist working in the lab doesn’t get that sort of media podium. So in a weird way, we have more sort of media presence and clout than the average scientist, which is kind of crazy. I like to tell people, I was in—
Timpson: Now when you say we, who?
Jorgenson: People working in unconventional spaces.
Timpson: Nonconventional spaces.
Jorgenson: I mean, I worked in cancer research for 10 years, and no one wanted to interview. Now everyone wants to interview me because I opened up a biohacker space in Brooklyn. So now you have a podium and you can sort of preach—not preach, but you can spread the word.
So that’s one, the second is that if you’re—the second part of interaction is the interaction I get every day in the space. So you’re a community-based organization, you’re actually helping people’s kids do their science fair projects, you’re working with local artists—you’re in the community, you’re of the community. You’re not in an ivory tower, you don’t work in a shiny new lab at Rockefeller University. You’re embedded in this crazy building—the rest of our floor is all these interactive designers, there’s all these blinking lights—and it’s a very safe space, it doesn’t feel alien or different.
And so you walk into that space and you do genetic engineering with your 14-year-old daughter, maybe, in a class, and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like this scary, alien technology that’s going to do terrible things to you. And then you gain more of an understanding of it. And I’d like to see everyone have a basic understanding of this stuff, just the way we understand electricity, you know? That it’s there, and yeah, you can electrocute someone, but you can also, you know, turn on a light bulb—and that’s the second kind of—that very personal one-on-one—
Timpson: Right, and watch “Downtown Abbey” and know what they thought about electric lights coming. [LAUGHS]
Jorgenson: Right, and I think we’re going through the same thing, in a way, with biotech, and I’d like to see it kind of demystified, decentralized, and sort of ubiquitous. As one of the panelists said, his kid in eighth grade is transforming bacteria, so the next generation, it’s going to be kind of boring, hopefully, to have this discussion. I hope.
Timpson: Do you connect—you talked about your lab being a safe place. It’s perceived safe. Do you connect that at all with more news coverage for you than when you were a cancer researcher?
Jorgenson: I don’t understand the question. What do you mean? More safe than when I was doing cancer research? [LAUGHS] What do you mean?
Timpson: Okay, let me ask, why do you think announcing you were doing the Genspace brought you more media coverage?
Jorgenson: Oh, because it’s something that no one’s done. And of course, in the beginning the stories were about—
Timpson: It’s new. The novelty.
Jorgenson: Yes. Is this going to be safe? What’s going to happen? Is Frankenstein going to be in the basement? But now that—
Timpson: And there was actual fear there?
Jorgenson: Oh, yeah. There was a “Wall Street Journal” article that said, “Frankenstein in the basement,” that was—
Timpson: About you?
Jorgenson: Well, not as Genspace specifically but the movement to have these biohacker spaces. So we’ve done a lot of work—Jason Bobe did a lot of work, he’s one of the founders of the original DIY Bio, Genspace has done a lot of work. We have a science advisory board that includes the Bio Safety Officer at MIT. I mean, we’ve done, we’ve bent over backwards to try and satisfy all of the critics on this and we really don’t get that kind of press anymore. It’s more around what sort of innovations are going to come out of the space and informal science education is the way to go. And that makes me really, really happy.
Timpson: Kristen, you work at a university.
Bole: Yeah, so I probably have the most complex view of audiences of anybody here.
Timpson: Okay, take us into that world.
Bole: So, UCSF—which many of you probably know, and some of you probably don’t—is the largest public recipient of NIH funding in the country—well, in the world, actually, but primarily country.
Timpson: Nice plug there.
Bole: So that means we have a huge basic research enterprise. We’re also a graduate-level health sciences university and we have a major medical center. So what that means, in terms of our audiences is in this era of flat-lined NIH funding or federal funding for science, we’re always looking for funding. So donors are a really big audience for us. How can we attract philanthropists and philanthropy? Patients, for the medical center, you know—that’s a really different community and that donors—you know, sometimes. So patients for the medical center is a huge audience for us.
Timpson: I mean, one of the big donors for UCSF is going to interview your former President, Marc Benioff of Salesforce is going to interview Sue Desmond-Hellman later today.
Bole: Yes, and he has been an incredible supporter of UCSF, and it’s people like him who really help us tremendously. So he’s one of our—a member of the audience.
Timpson: So are you tying your science communication into, how can we keep this thing rolling?
Bole: Well, it’s not insignificant.
Timpson: We have a higher level than that?
Bole: Yes, so we also have—because we’re a public institution, we also have the public mission. So we have programs teaching kids science, so we are in every, you know, elementary school in the city of San Francisco, for instance, teaching science. So we definitely have that, you know, the elementary school children, the high school kids, the general public, and obviously donors, and then collaborators of multiple types.
Timpson: Now, what’s your ideal interaction.
Bole: Oh, sorry—and Congress.
Timpson: And Congress? That’s right.
Bole: Yeah, so I mean, we have a lot of different audiences, and we have to tell the story in different ways to each of those.
Timpson: So what’s your ideal way of doing that? What’s working for you
Bole: What’s working? It depends on the story. So every story really is tailored for a different audience. So if we’re telling a story to the general public and our goal is to get a patient-related story into the local news—you know, that’s, obviously we work with local journalists to do that and we make sure we’ve got a great patient who’s representative of the issue. We make sure that they’re talking to the expert physician or researcher or whoever’s involved.
But then if we are pitching a story to “Science” or “Nature,” you know, we have a really different angle on that, and it’s a really different type of story that we’re going to try to direct in that—
Timpson: Okay, and you’re obviously very good at it. I mean, the number one recipient of NIH funds—you’re doing well juggling these audiences.
Bole: I don’t think that was me. [LAUGHS]
Timpson: It’s totally you. That’s why you’re here.
Bole: I’d love to take credit for that, but I think we have a few researchers that might [LAUGHS] be more responsible.
Timpson: Okay, and our fourth panelist, Erika?
Hayden: Well, I think this is where you’re going, right, is this question of audience sort of is the answer to the question in front of the panel, which is how we avoid, you know, a GMO nightmare. It just has to do with who’s in front of you and how you connect with them.
So at “Nature” we have—our constituency is scientists and working scientists and science policy-makers, so that’s our core audience, but as a journalist, what I write goes up on the web, and a lot of it is really available so anyone can see it. So kind of a little dance that we do, where we really need to target our content primarily towards scientists, with the understanding that anyone can see it. So we have these little debates within nature about, like, what do we need to define? Do we need to define “T-cell?” What about “gene?” You know, because anything we put up there sort of is very broadly accessible.
So that’s one level of audience and then in my daily life I guess I have sort of a community audience. So it’s been, as you mentioned, this whole vaccine debate has really come home for me, because my child is in a preschool in San Francisco, and we recently learned that our preschool has some not-stellar vaccination rates, so there’s been a whole discussion there about that, and sort of watching that unfold is a completely different and interesting and informative experience for me, as a science communicator.
Timpson: Say more about that.
Hayden: Say more about that? The kind of arguments—
Timpson: It’s pushed you in new ways?
Hayden: Yes. The kinds of arguments that will resonate with my audience at “Nature” are not necessarily the same ones that are going to resonate with my friends. I mean, my friends, the parents of children who go to school with my children. And—
Timpson: Now, these are educated folks?
Hayden: Definitely, yes.
Timpson: So how do you engage? How do you bridge that?
Hayden: Carefully? I think for the most part what I’ve tried to do is be in a listening mode, because I think that’s one thing—as science communicators, we sort of assume that we’ve got all the answers and that’s not always the case. So what I’m trying to do is listen to what are the kinds of arguments that people are making about this. Do we conform with what we think, sort of, about why people don’t accept vaccines? Do they conform with this idea that this is sort of an anti-science movement? You know, from my experience, no. So I’m trying to do that kind of learning about what’s really going on behind these decisions.
Jorgenson: Can I contribute an experience to that? So we had someone come and give a lecture—we have talks at Genspace all the time, and the audience is just completely random—and two people got into a knock-down, drag-out—the speaker, who was an immunologist, and a very highly educated Brooklyn hipster who didn’t believe in vaccination. And every argument that she had, he dissected back to sort of a conspiracy theory, and it’s like, “Well, the overwhelming evidence,” and it’s like, who’s giving you the evidence? Are they completely clean? Are the drug companies paying them?
On and on and on, until finally the woman who invited the speaker, who was very smart, stood up and said, “Look, consider this—in the height of the power of tobacco companies, when they had just enormous amounts of money and pull, the most number of scientists that they were able to sway to say that tobacco was okay, was 50%. We’ve got over 99% of the scientists saying that vaccines are okay. There’s like, this one guy that’s saying that they’re not. You can’t buy that many scientists.” And that argument resonated, because it had nothing to do with the science and everything to do with logic.
Timpson: So this hipster listened to that?
Jorgenson: Yeah, yeah. Because it was compelling. Because it sort of blew his conspiracy theory, yeah.
Timpson: So a little bit of history, some story—yes. So a story there. And this crowd—and what a great conference today, huh? This intersection of tech and bio, and seeing where we’re going in the future. This crowd, from what I can pick up, tends to be syn-bio focused—a lot of folks here are from breakout labs, small, new companies—
Bethencourt: And a few Indie.Bio companies.
Timpson: Indie.Bio, thank you.
Bethencourt: And mentors, and mentors.
Timpson: I think what they want to know from you guys—this is why we’re paying you the big bucks to be here—oh, you’re not getting paid? Is how can they invent their products and get them out there—the lab meat, for instance, you know where I was talking with the co-founder of EpiBone, they’re growing bone, at lunch—and we’re going to hear from them later. How can they get these products out there and avoid the GMO debacle? And I’m going to let you jump in now—we did the formal thing, so let’s just be lively.
Bethencourt: So we have a company, called Clarifoods [PH—0:21:25.1], which is doing exactly that. So, they are—
Timpson: Clarifoods?
Bethencourt: Clarifoods, yeah. They’re actually making egg white. They’re brewing egg white with genetically modified yeast. What’s been interesting is the wording that you use is very powerful. So the CEO—and I won’t speak too much about the product, other than it’s a neat product—but the CEO has tried different types of wording, and different wording works differently. And he’s gone directly, like, Rainbow Grocery—I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Rainbow Grocery—it’s kind of like an uber-granola Whole Food, like Whole Foods on steroids.
Hayden: Like a co-op.
Bethencourt: Yeah, it’s a co-op. It’s—
Timpson: Granola are the people who come in. Not particularly what’s on the shelf.
Bethencourt: Yeah. Yes. [LAUGHS] So he’s called them up and said, “Hey, we have this, you know, this lab-grown egg white,” and it was just like, “Okay, click,” [LAUGHS] the lady he was speaking with. So he’s been finding a way of communicating. It’s brewed—
Jorgenson: Fermentation process, there we go.
Bethencourt: —fermentation, brewed. You use different wording, and people associate it—people have emotional connections to words, and so that’s what he’s been finding. His whole process of exploration has really led to that point. It’s the emotions connected to words.
And so people don’t seem to mind when you’re removing things like—one of the experiences I had was talking about the new Vanillin that’s come out, the genetically-modified vanilla. People seem to understand that, well, look, currently the way that we’re doing is not sustainable. They’re okay to have vanilla that comes from yeast. They know what yeast is, they know that Vanillin—they’re okay with that. Even anti-GMO people are okay with that, and I’ve seen it, like, they’ve told me that they would eat it.
Timpson: What do you think is the difference?
Bethencourt: They’re—I don’t know.
Timpson: You don’t know. You’d like to know?
Bethencourt: I don’t know. I don’t know if you guys—I mean, do you guys have any thoughts on it?
Timpson: Okay, but going into emotion—you talk about emotion, too. And this is very sensitive stuff. I mean, I hope I didn’t piss anybody off asking if anyone was against vaccines here, because I just want to hear from you. I’d just like to hear—and we’re going to turn it out to the audience shortly.
Bethencourt: They’re—which, by the way, a lot of people die trying to get vaccines to children who are dying of disease, and it’s a really important thing—but I always say this, I mean, people die in Nigeria, they die in Pakistan, they get killed going from village to village—right? So—
Timpson: You’re good with the emotion thing.
Bethencourt: Yeah, yeah, yeah—
Timpson: Okay, but maybe not triggering the negative emotion and the fear, and trying to find words that evoke a positive emotion?
Hayden: Well, I thought—one thing that’s interesting about this to me, is to look at what the opposite side is saying. So for instance, the California Right to Know campaign—that was in favor of Proposition 37 here that would have labeled GMO foods. So if you look at their ads—I asked Daryl [PH—0:24:21.7] if we could play one of the ads, and we couldn’t, but the ad says something like this, “Food is love, food is life, food is family. We all have the right to know what’s in our food.” Who can argue with any of that? There’s nothing you can say to that.
Timpson: With great lighting, and—
Hayden: And beautiful pictures of parents and children, and then, “Pesticide companies like Monsanto and Dow shouldn’t be able to hide that they are genetically modifying our food,” so drawing the association—and I think this is an issue for GMO is that there is this association with who’s doing or funding a lot of the pro-GMO advocacy is bio-agricultural industrial companies that the public distrusts. So a lot of the work that you are fostering and the DIY biologists and syn-bio is trying to do a completely different mode of genetic technology, but there is this association in the public mind with large industrial companies. So that’s something that is going to just need to be addressed.
Jorgenson: It’s kind of sad, because I’ve talked with the Chief Science Officer of Monsanto—we were at a State Department conference on the bio-economy, speaking. And I remember sitting on the edge of the stage with him afterwards, and saying, “You know, a lot of our goals are the same, in terms of public education, but the only way we could work together or anything, is if you just put some money in a paper bag, knock on the door and run away,” you know? I mean, we can’t be associated with Monsanto at all. So it is a problem with that, but I do think that, you know, like you said—this more local, homegrown stuff, with total transparency, and not only that—involvement. If you can get the community involved in actually doing the genetic engineering, then that’s kind of really exciting. Maybe a product comes out of, you know, some kid’s high school project or something.
Bole: That would be scary.
Jorgenson: But no!
Timpson: That would be scary?
Bethencourt: There we go.
Jorgenson: One of the iGen teams, we had a community lab track at iGen, and one of them was the in vitro—Real Vegan Cheese.
Bethencourt: Counter Culture Labs and Biocurious.
Jorgenson: And they’re trying to make—right—and some of the kids working on that project were very, very young.
Bethencourt: Yes.
Jorgenson: So it could happen.
Timpson: So speaking of—oh, go ahead.
Bole: You know, I was just going to say, I think this is really interesting, because I think you raised a really significant element of this whole debate, which is a huge mistrust of industry. And it goes back to your point, too, that if you say anything that implies that a big company that doesn’t really care about people made this for profit, then everybody’s going to say, “No way.” But if you say, you know, “Food is love, food is—we have a right to know what’s in our food,” then everybody goes out and buys organic stuff—and they’ll buy it and they don’t really care what’s in it and really how much transparency—well, we’ll get into the whole food-labeling issue on that one, but—
Timpson: Well, I mean, organic food can be big companies too, right?
Bole: It can. But it’s not sold that way. People think of it as that lovely apple tree in the backyard, you know? They don’t think of it as a big company.
Timpson: Okay, so there’s probably some lesson there. Speaking of community involvement, I want to get the audience involved. We’re halfway through, here is Bruce—do we have microphones? Great. So, Bruce?
Bruce: Just a quick comment, and then a question, going to Ryan’s point. Everyone in this room and everything you’ve ever eaten and everything you ever will eat, is genetically modified.
Jorgenson: And the cotton you’re wearing.
Bruce: And the stuff I’m wearing. So I have a question for you—if you discard the Glen Becks and all the people that believe that Francis Crick isn’t really an American citizen, right, you know, the crazies—has the dialogue and the trust level gone up over the past 20 years, or is it still at the same level of polarization that we saw—for example, and just another quick comment—when stem cells first came into public consciousness, “Oh they’re killing unborn babies,” and then they found out they could take them from cadavers, and that kind of argument went away. So where are we in the—
Timpson: So how’s the trend?
Bruce: How’s the trend. It’s not better overnight.
Bole: Good question.
Hayden: Really good question.
Bethencourt: Yeah, so do you guys have any data on trends, like GMO trends? I mean, I know, I go head-on, so I’m like arguing with people on social media regularly. So I see it a lot.
Jorgenson: And you’re still happy to argue—
Bethencourt: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Timpson: Well, today’s “New York Times,” their food writer, Michael Bittman, beat up on Monsanto and went after GMOs. He said, it’s time to stand up to them, so that was today.
Bethencourt: And there’s been a lot of stuff recently in the press about GMOs going organic. That’s also another thing, right, that’s another. That’s linked with anti-GMO, right?
Timpson: All right, so the trend is still—
Hayden: The data is that most Americans just don’t actually know what GMO means, so that’s the most recent data, from like earlier this year or maybe last year is, it’s something like 50% of Americans don’t actually know what a GMO is. So what that says to me is that there’s like this huge opportunity, if you want to avoid a disaster, there’s still a lot of people whose minds are kind of—they could go either way. So now is the time to act, if it’s something that is of interest to you.
Timpson: You forwarded an article to me that say, “80% favor labeling of food containing DNA.”
Jorgenson: But that’s true, that’s true—we hear it all the time, that, “I’d never eat a genetically modified tomato. There’s DNA in it. Did you know that?” Really, the level—that’s one of the things that drove me to found Genspace, just the profound level of ignorance about the most basic molecular biology.
Jorgenson: Hopefully the next generation, because of, you know, the schooling, will not be that way, but who knows, you know?
Timpson: Okay, so anyone out here who’s got one of these companies—disruptors here, who wants to know—okay.
Audience1: [INDISCERNIBLE—OFF MIKE—0:30:50.5]. So, my question for you is more—I agree, and I came from the biotech pharmaceutical industry and went into teaching, because I wanted to get more exposure into that. What I think we need to do, though, too, is there is a huge level of ignorance out there and just because you are rich or wealthy does not mean you are educated. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
I work in a Title One school. We don’t have the funds to get some of this type of curriculum to our kids. Now these are kids that are coming into voting age soon.
Timpson: So—
Audience1: That’s an audience we want to get to.
Jorgenson: Genspace is actually working on programs to help you. We’re going to start rolling out teacher training and grants and things to actually go right into schools to the front lines and—I mean, there are a lot of schools in New York City that don’t have any money either, and—our community is working on that.
Audience1: [INDISCERNIBLE—0:31:59.3]
Jorgenson: Talk to me later.
Bole: Yeah, so—actually I think it’s a great point, but I also think that there are so many universities out there—and I know this is certainly a topic of conversation at UCSF, but there are so many universities out there that have really—even if they’re not only focused on science, they’ve got great science programs. And it seems that if we could broker partnerships between universities and the K-12 community—it seems like there’s this widening gulf of understanding.
Jorgenson: You know, I think you need—because we see this in New York. What happens is, there are these great programs like BioBuilder from MIT, they come in, they train the teachers once, they leave, and then the teachers just—they’re just not confident enough to deal with it.
So a community lab, we actually act as place where the teachers came come afterwards and get sort of ongoing support right in their local area—or from someone who’s not as busy, maybe, or overloaded as the programs that you have.
Bole: Yes, so we actually have that kind program as well, where the teachers can come back in, and we’ve trained hundreds of teachers, but I would bet that there are many other universities that have similar—especially public universities, that have that public mission, and may have some little tiny project, program that hasn’t really been built out—or would be interested in creating a program.
Timpson: Okay, there’s something very positive we can say we figured out here.
Bethencourt: There’s something that we have to—as science communicators, as all of us, as science communicators, we have to take responsibility for—is that sometimes we don’t meet people where they are, right? So who’s tweeting, who’s doing stuff on Facebook, who’s doing Instagram—
Timpson: Where they are in terms of what platform—
Bethencourt: What platform reaching the masses, right? And I think that there’s a lack of that in the science community. I mean, that’s one of the things at Indie.Bio. Like, our scientists, our founders—the scientist entrepreneurs, they’re hesitant to communicate externally, right? And that’s something that we work on a lot. But who is the Bill Nye of biotech? Who is the Neil deGrasse Tyson of biotech, right?
Timpson: Well, but let me ask you and Ellen—because I think on your TED Talk, Ellen, it starts out with, “There was the personal computing revolution, now it’s personal biotech,” right? Take it out to everybody. So who’s the Steve Jobs of biotech? Who took the personal computer out to everybody in biotech.
Jorgenson: I don’t think—I think the jury’s still out. I mean, this is so new, this whole area. It was only facilitated about five years ago.
Bethencourt: Yeah.
Jorgenson: The cost of reading and writing DNA code didn’t come down until it reached the level of the masses until literally only a few years ago—
Timpson: So, it has to be in Silicon Valley. So, I’m sorry, it won’t be one of your—[LAUGHS]
Bole: I think the glove has been cast down.
Bethencourt: We have a few interesting entrepreneurs at Indie.Bio. [LAUGHS]
Timpson: So, entrepreneurship—and that’s in my notes here—so we’re talking about education. How about education through entrepreneurship? Okay? So the traditional model has been academia and scientists and working at big companies—it seems to me we’re moving to a world, particularly, I mean, this conference, everybody is going to agree—everybody is going to be an entrepreneur. I mean, it seems to me, UCSF and Stanford are as concerned with creating entrepreneurs as they are academics and there’s a lot of reason why that is.
Is there a way for entrepreneurs, or education through entrepreneurship? Everybody’s eyes are filming over, big time.
Jorgensen: Somebody’s dying over here. She’s jumping out of her seat.
Audience2: Well, I’m laughing, I’ll tell you why. So, yeah, there is a lack of curriculum for biotech. It’s not really taught in schools, and I watched my mom—she was entrepreneurial and she brought biotech to our school. She went out, she worked with Bio-Rad, and she built curriculum to teach biotech, to teach how to do recombinant DNA at her high school level. And now—
Timpson: You said, Bio-Rad? The company?
Audience2: The company that sponsored her. And now science is cool, science is really cool and one in six kids are competing in science fairs, which did not happen before. So I think a question is, like, it’s not—how do you communicate that what you’re doing is accessible to everyone, and then they can make more stuff with it? Like, I’m founding a company BioLoop, and we’re—
Timpson: BioLube?
Audience2: BioLoop.
Timpson: Loop—and you’re the CEO?
Audience2: And I’m the CEO, and we’re making raw materials, and I—out of microbes—and I didn’t really how many vegan designers would be interested in using genetically modified stuff, because it’s animal-free and it’s new. So like, how do you enable people to use stuff that you create with biotech? Like, I think that really increases interaction, because it’s not just like words, but—like, it’s not adjectives, but nouns now.
Timpson: Comments on that?
Jorgenson: Tangible stuff is really important, too.
Bethencourt: I was just going to follow on that—the earlier riffs. Maybe the Steve Jobs of biotech is actually Jenny, right? [LAUGHS]
Timpson: Jenny?
Bethencourt: Her name is Jenny, yeah. I think by—
Timpson: BioLoop?
Bethencourt: —BioLoop—by doing, right? I think by showing people that you can actually make real products that people want. You know, there’s a really exciting company called Bolt Threads—I’m sure many of you have heard of Bolt Threads. Bolt Threads used to be called Refactored Materials, they make spider silk clothing, right? It’s cool. It’s like, bulletproof underpants, right? It’s kind of crazy, but it’s kind of cool.
Bole: And they started—so they started in this little garage in Mission Bay, in little incubators—six companies in one little lab. And they had their spiders hanging from the ceiling, and they were these massive orb spiders—they were just gorgeous.
Bethencourt: Awesome.
Bole: It freaked out some of the other companies, but—
Bethencourt: Having a bunch of orb spiders.
Jorgenson: We have dogs running through the lab sometimes.
Bethencourt: I love dogs—I wish—
Timpson: Okay, so it kind of feels like—was there any other burning audience…?
Audience3: So I don’t want to send this off the rails here but there were a couple of interesting things that emerged. Kristen talked about the drying up of NIH funding. Ellen you talked about, I could never accept money from Monsanto unless you left it in a bag outside the door. Some of those things are built on realities of misaligned goals, but there are a lot of poor perceptions out there about GMOs, about drug development processes and so forth, and I’m wondering how—will it ever be the role of science or science communicators to actually start educating the public on the drug development process, and helping them to understand that just because this company is big, they’re not necessarily evil?
Jorgenson: Well, I came face-to-face—I used to be with the Sabin Vaccine Foundation, and we facilitated these big meetings between—nobody wants to pay for vaccines, okay? The reality is, all the easy ones have already been made. The hard ones are incredibly hard to develop, they cost a lot of money, and nobody wants to pay top dollar for them. Everyone wants them to be free or a low cost to everyone. And so how do you communicate—one of the frustrations expressed by one of the companies was, a Congressman would actually go up and said, “Why are they charging so much? You can make vaccines in a bathtub.” And when you have that kind of ignorance at the highest level, you have to—
Timpson: But you’re in favor of doing that, right?
Jorgenson: What?
Timpson: Making vaccines in a bathtub.
Timpson: Bathtub biotech, right?
Jorgenson: Well, maybe now you can—back then you couldn’t. But you know what I’m saying, is that there’s—I agree, 100%, and we do—I was in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. I do try to take their part. I mean, when they shut down 23andMe, boy, I got a lot of flack for saying, “Hey, supposedly there were five years worth of letters that went back and forth, and 23andMe did nothing?” You know, there’s a middle ground there, and they have to come to terms. It’s not just the FDA’s the bad guy.
Hayden: I think with the life science companies, the thing you really have going in your favor is your mission, and—so there are these surveys that look at public attitudes about science. The public is extremely supportive of science. So we have this attitude, or like, conventional wisdom right now, that there’s a war on science, but if you look at surveys, like the Pugh Survey on attitudes about science, it’s like 80% of the American public thinks that science has been good for culture and good for the country in various ways.
So there’s a good story to tell. I think it goes back to that question of audience, so I think part of the problem with the GMO debate has been, there hasn’t been a clear benefit articulated about why this is good for the public, so that goes back to what you were saying about sustainability, you know, but that the GMO labeling ad talks about, you know, all that this is good for is helping pesticide companies. We need to come up with some better arguments about that, if we expect to win these arguments, but for the life science companies, you know, you’re making medicines to benefit humanity—that’s a pretty winning argument that will go over well.
Timpson: So let’s get into that. You seem to be more willing to look at the other side here, and say, what are the arguments? And I remember interviewing George Church, you know, the geneticist, and asking him, “Have you ever heard any good anti-GMO arguments?” He said, “Absolutely, there’s a lot of them.” We didn’t go about it very good as an industry. We could do a lot better, and what you’re saying is, we could make the case better. So let me—just for the last five minutes here, let’s try and think through this.
Let’s start out with—just give me your first impression—why is science important? One line.
Jorgenson: It’s one of the things that differentiates ourselves from lower species, that we can build on.
Timpson: Okay, Ryan?
Bethencourt: To me, it’s—we’re, tools is the primary—like, science is just another tool, and it’s what we use to raise ourselves up, so.
Timpson: Tool to raise ourselves up? Change for better?
Bethencourt: From where we came from, right? We were—we are animals, and so we’ve managed to differentiate ourselves from everything else.
Timpson: Kristen?
Bole: Yep, I would agree completely with those, but it is our tool to better the human condition, and I would say the world’s condition.
Timpson: Yeah. And, Erika?
Hayden: Science makes our lives better, period.
Timpson: Makes our lives better, okay. So you were talking about change, change for the better, right? So I think the question we have as humans—and Darwin’s the one that came up with this, right, that evolution happens through these slight mutations—the question is always whether to mutate or not, for any species. I mean, we’re talking about humans here, but it’s a very real question about whether to change or not. Should I change on this topic, should I not change, when it comes to this? And there are good reasons not to change doing some things, right?
Jorgenson: Well, I think any technology is dual-use, okay? You can build a wall with a rock or you can kill someone with a rock. And so it really depends on how you use the technology, and I think some of the uses in the beginning—like GMO plants, okay, Round-Up Ready versus the Bt gene. The Bt gene allows you to not use pesticide, so you don’t have to spray pesticide all over the fields. The Round-Up Ready gene allows you to spray Round-Up all over the fields. So two genetically modified products from the same company with completely different outcomes, in terms of use of potentially dangerous chemicals.
Timpson: Okay, so you’re saying one improved us, improved the human condition, and one isn’t, particularly.
Jorgenson: I would say that for the most part, yeah.
Timpson: Yeah.
Jorgenson: I mean, it’s sort of black and white—we hate to be, as scientists, black and white, but yeah.
Timpson: Right, so I think that’s a good question that we should always ask, is should we change here, and how do we know when to change? And is science that tool that shows us when to change, right?
Jorgenson: Well, we have to engage everybody in on the change—and the more you can educate to what they’re deciding about, the better off they’re going to be, the better decisions you’ll get.
Bethencourt: There will always be resistance, though, right? I mean, there will always be resistance to change. The Luddites, right? The Luddites tore up the mills, like, the looms, the automated looms, right? We’re just seeing modern-day Luddites.
Timpson: But do you understand—I mean, for instance, let’s look at the first tool mankind came up with, you know, some kind of an axe, rock, stone-axe. And once he perfected it, and was able to get it pointed, they used that for how many thousands of years? Right?
And so Peter Diamandis, your old boss.
Bethencourt: My old boss.
Timpson: Shows a slide in his talks, where he shows the exponential curve of change and says that change is progressing now exponentially. It’s more and more and more and more. 100,000 years ago, we roamed the savannah, we didn’t change that much from generation to generation. Now, in our lives we’re seeing so much change.
So my question is, how do you know when to change? Not every change is good. That rock was a really, really good rock, for a long time, you know?
Bole: I actually think this raises a really interesting issue, which is how do you get the public to question things constructively? That it’s more than—it is about education, it is about change versus no change, but how do we—when do we ask the question—and one of the issues I’m thinking about, climate change, and that whole debate—and how you can, seemingly science is so conflicted about it.
As scientists, you’re taught to question. I mean, that’s your role as a scientist, is to question, but the public doesn’t really understand that, right? So they hear the two sides and they think, oh, well it’s not 99% in favor of vaccines, it’s 50/50. You know, or climate change, it’s 50/50. It’s really, it’s how you convey the questioning nature of science, that I actually think is a really important element of our communications.
Hayden: I actually think, with regard to something like GMOs, the more you can make it seem like you’re not really changing what’s going on, the less threatening it will be. So we’re already eating lots of GMOs in our food, and I don’t think most people are aware of that. We have a long history of crop breeding and hybridization and animal breeding—I mean, the more that you can sort of put what’s going on now in the context of what we’ve always been doing, the more that’s going to go down well with people.
I think there’s some areas, like food, where maybe that’s not the place where you want to tell people that they need to change, because that’s such a core and such an emotional thing. There may be other areas, like medicine, where they’re kind of more open to that, but that’s where that debate about who your audience is comes in really handy. It can help you figure out, like, is this where you want to make the argument, or is this where you want to sort of fit in with what people’s current expectations already are?
Bole: That actually raises an interesting element, because I think when we report on science or when we report out on our science, it’s always reporting the latest discovery, the newest breakthrough, or the newest advance—maybe not a breakthrough, but—you know, we’re reporting change. And the conflict is, as you say, in some areas people don’t want to hear that. They want to hear what’s similar.
Timpson: Okay, I think that’s a great place to leave it, actually. That sums it up really nicely. Maybe that’s what the Vanillin folks, were able to do—
Bethencourt: Maybe, yes.
Timpson: —is to make it look more incremental, and we talked about this before—this crowd—and I say this with great respect—okay, I recognize some people here—this is a very interesting mixture of people, actually, at Technomy. But a lot of times at these conferences, it’s the future-looking crowd, it’s the people who really want to shake things up, disruption is the word of the day, and revolution.
And Erika, when I was on the phone with her—I think it was you, maybe it was Kristen—said, “You know, actually science progresses incrementally. There’s incremental change.” And so maybe when you can tie into the longer story, that’s a way of getting your message across in a way that it will be accepted.
And then there’s one other thing that came up in our pre-chat, which didn’t come up today, which I thought was really stunning—what’s in common with science? There are other things in common with science, you know, there’s the humanities, and a few of us have English degrees, actually, so it takes the humanities to kind of communicate the sciences. So I don’t think we should overlook the role of communicators and English majors and history majors. I just read an article yesterday in “National Geographic” by a history major, who is also a PhD scientist, who said once he got into his job, he was put in a PR place—you were a scientist, now you’re in a major PR role—he was drawing from his history degree more than anything, to be able to communicate this.
So what’s at the base of all this? How can we reach people? And Kristen told me, she says, you know, “Questioning. Asking questions. Scientists do it, but journalists do it, too. We all do it.” So that’s a place where we can meet people in the middle, is through questions.
So that’s our show. We have to leave it there. I want to thank our panelists: Erika Check Hayden, Kristen Bole, Ryan Bethencourt, Ellen Jorgenson. Thanks for your comments, thanks for being such a great audience, and on with the show.


Ellen Jorgensen

Co-founder and Executive Director, Genspace

Kristen Bole

Assistant Director, Public Affairs, University of California San Francisco

Ryan Bethencourt

Program Director and Venture Partner, Indie.Bio

Theral Timpson

Host and Producer, Mendelspod

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