By now many of you will have heard the term ‘CRISPR’ in the news. CRISPR-Cas9, often shorten to ‘CRISPR’ (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary genome editing technique that allows permanent modification of genes within organisms. To date much of the conversation around the use of this technology has been around its potential for treating disease or editing human embryos. There is no doubt that the potential for good is great, however, there is also understandable concern that this technology could be environmentally disruptive or exploited for more nefarious purposes.
There are huge ethical implications to genome editing and it is therefore vital that public dialogue is opened up early-on. The research field needs to listen to and address people’s concerns and interests; ensuring society has an active voice and basic familiarity with a technology which could soon be mainstreamed. This is especially true when you consider the poor handling of public engagement around ‘genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs). Public attitude can heavily influence policy makers, so engaging the public proactivity rather than reactively is warranted.
So why am I even talking about this? Well, the Wellcome Trust has commissioned the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) to work on a one year project [Genome Editing Public Engagement Synergy (GEPES)] exploring how best to take forwards public engagement with genome editing, working in partnership with the Wellcome Genome Campus. Wellcome knows we need to get the engagement with this research right or risk another ‘GMO situation’.
In true public engagement fashion, the NCCPE issued a callout to those with experience and interest in doing engagement in this topical area to come together. A group of approximately 40 people (myself included) descended on Euston to discuss current practice and key issues. UoB has real strength in genomics research (not just genome editing), so I’m interested in seeing what is already being done and considering what role we can play in engaging publics with the topic.
I found the event extremely useful as a PER practitioner, predominantly for the networking opportunity it offered me. I met several leading academics in the field, as well as figures involved in policy engagement and strategy consultation e.g. Vivienne Parry (Head of Engagement for Genomics England), a board member for UKRI. Some of the most inspiring people I met that day were those who came from outside of the HEI sector and some of the younger voices (PhD students) who seem to already be trailblazing their own genome editing engagement activities. I do think the event could have benefited from more academic voices in the room, however. Most of the day focused on what the key messaging needed to be and what realistic actions could be taken within the timeframe of the project. There was disagreement about what level of detail is needed i.e. how much of technical side of things does the public need to know? Most agreed that the public wanted to know what the technique meant for them, rather than the specifics of how it worked. However, there were some who were adamant that some specifics were needed, particularly to distinguish the technique from GMO research, for example.
This was the first GEPES meeting and I intend on taking part in the future sessions. This post is to highlight the initiative and encourage UoB academics interested in being involved or feeding in to the conversations to get in touch with me or to contact the NCCPE directly for more information.
The project aims to develop:
- A comprehensive map highlighting existing public engagement activity
- A framework to help elicit collective learning about public engagement with genome editing, including public attitudes to this area.
- Recommendations for the future of public engagement with genome editing
- Resources for those wanting to engage including toolkits, guides and case studies
- Training modules to support researchers and public engagement professionals seeking to engage the public with genome editing
- More information here