CORVALLIS - Oregon State University is beginning a new "Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues" that will try to provide impartial and scientifically accurate information to the public about some of the most pressing issues surrounding biotechnology.
Terri Lomax, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology, has been appointed to a part-time Extension position as the temporary director of this innovative new program, which will be supported by the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. It will begin immediately.
Combining science and public communication, this will be one of only three university outreach efforts of its type in the nation. It will try to inject scientific accuracy and public education into a field that is increasingly controversial, officials say, and hopefully provide consumers a more balanced option to the often-conflicting viewpoints of private industry or social activists.
"As a public university, we're going to examine the many issues surrounding biotechnology, the real science that is being done, and communicate those findings to the public, whatever they may be," Lomax said. "The citizens, consumers and farmers of America increasingly are asking for a source they can trust for information about biotechnology, and we think OSU has the resources to meet that need."
Lomax said she plans to draw upon a wealth of expertise at OSU in developing the new program, including gene researchers, ecologists, economists, philosophers, and science communicators, in addition to input from an external advisory board. A web site, public speaking engagements, interaction with the news media, and education of county Extension agents are all planned in the new program.
As it evolves, officials in the College of Agricultural Sciences said they eventually hope to expand programs in this area.
"This field is complicated and we need people who can understand both the science and the social concerns," said Mike Burke, associate dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. "As an accomplished scientist and excellent communicator, we believe Terri Lomax is the ideal person to get this program moving and tap into the other outstanding faculty here at OSU.
"Biotechnology is a field of great social, scientific and economic significance to the world, and OSU is now going to make a serious commitment to improving communication in this area," Burke said. "We think this new program can perform a valuable, even unique service to the public."
As a growing, global industry, the fruits of gene research are now in the commercial marketplace everywhere from the grocery store to the doctor's office. But as this multi-billion dollar revolution in science has evolved, critics have raised many concerns and legitimate questions, Lomax said.
How is this science controlled and regulated? How can researchers make sure there will be no unwanted or uncontrolled transfer of new genetic traits from one organism to another? Are there any human health risks from bioengineered products? Is biotechnology really needed to meet our food, fiber, medical and other needs? What are the alternatives, and what are their relative costs and risks, if society chooses not to use biotechnology?
How is genetic engineering similar to or different from traditional plant breeding techniques? Should the products that have been created with biotechnology be labeled as such in the marketplace? And what are the philosophical or ethical implications of biotechnology?
Sometimes these concerns have been voiced in regulatory hearings or social protests, Lomax said. Other times they have taken the form of violence and vandalism. In Europe, progress in developing or marketing new genetically modified products has ground almost to a halt. In the United States, many companies are reluctant to make a major commitment to the field in light of the uncertainties.
And many consumers, Lomax said, simply aren't sure what to think or whom to believe.
"We'd like to see this program help to answer many of these questions with an approach that people can trust," Lomax said. "At first we'll act primarily as a clearinghouse, helping to find accurate information, interpret it in ways people can understand and pass it along. Later on, we hope to do more original study right here at OSU on both the scientific and social issues."
Lomax is an educator and plant molecular biologist who, in her research work, has used genetic techniques as a tool to understand how plants grow. OSU has many other scientists who work in different aspects of gene research, from crop agriculture to animal science, biomedicine, forestry, pollution control and even the molecular basis of aging. Altogether, about 90 faculty from six colleges work at least partly with biotechnology. The state of Oregon is looking to biotechnology as a major part of its economic growth. And on Wall Street, it's one of the huge growth industries of recent years.
But the new program at OSU will be designed to be neither a proponent of the biotechnology industry, university officials say, nor a forum for unsubstantiated charges. Rather, they say, it will try to identify, interpret and present to the public scientific information on biotechnology as accurately as possible, and let the facts fall where they may.