CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has created a new Outreach Program in Resource Biotechnology to work with policy makers, the science community, educators, students and the general public in understanding the use of biotechnology in agriculture and natural resources.
The program will build upon some similar educational initiatives operated by OSU several years ago, and respond to the continued and persistent public debate about biotechnology issues and genetic engineering, said Steve Strauss, a professor of genetics and forest science, and program director.
"Most of our crops already are genetically engineered via conventional means," Strauss said. "But the use of recombinant DNA methods, also called gene splicing, raises many new conundrums with its new opportunities.
"It's important to listen to all viewpoints and help to identify the factually and contextually accurate information," he said. "There are many strong ideological views, new and complex gene science to understand, rapidly evolving agricultural and food production practices, and vested interests in outcomes. This makes it essential to have referees that the public and decision makers can rely upon."
The new program will focus on the scientific dimensions of benefit, risk and ethics of biotechnology, Strauss said, and will also closely track the many important issues that go beyond the realm of science, including legal, financial, cultural, psychological, and religious perspectives. It will develop a network of scientific contacts to help inform the public and decision makers.
Funding for the program will be provided by the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Forestry at OSU, and may later include charitable grants, federal research support, or educational grants available through the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education or others.
The program responds in part to needs identified in a new, independent report on existing outreach programs on these topics, said Kirstin Carroll, who will serve as the full-time coordinator.
"This study indicated that there are no programs like this established in the Pacific Northwest, and only two similar ones in the entire nation, at Cornell University and the University of California," Carroll said. "There's a real deficit of active outreach in biotechnology by academic organizations, especially in the area of crop genetic engineering, which is highly complex and controversial."
Several core guidelines have been defined for the program. They include:
- Respect and common ground: The program will mediate discussion and identify common ground between widely differing views about biotechnology. Although scientists say that the safety of genetically modified organisms resides with the end product rather than the process of creating them, the process itself clearly creates alarm and social concerns for many. These differing views must be explored.
- Context: Discussions about biotechnology should include the historical context. Genetic modification has been done for millennia, and included the use of new species, wide hybridization, inbreeding, cloning and chemical or radiation mutagenesis. Some aspects of biotechnology are new and have risks or benefits that are difficult to estimate. Other products are familiar in their properties and may be safer than the products they replace, for example by reducing pesticide use or damage to soil.
- Holism: Considering a full range of alternatives may help achieve environmental and humanistic goals in a growing and resource limited world. Difficult choices and possible tradeoffs among goals must be identified, and over-simplifications and distortions of science and technology avoided.
- Humanitarian issues: The widely differing levels of wealth, food security, and environmental health among people around the world can lead to very different perspectives about the kinds of technological benefits and risks they are willing to assume. In their social debate, developed nations should consider how strict regulations that are imposed on trade, agricultural subsidies, biodiversity, and food safety can have powerful effects on the poor.
"There's a lot we can do to improve the level of understanding about biotechnology," Strauss said. "According to recent surveys the majority of Americans don't even know that tomatoes have genes, let alone any of the details of gene technology. A lack of understanding of the science in this area leaves the public prone to confusion and alarm."
Public outreach will be a key goal of the program, possibly including museum exhibits, radio or television programming, community or after-school programs or materials, and web-based information.
Collaboration may also be sought with existing K-12 outreach programs that OSU operates or is involved with, such as Science Education Partnerships, the Rural Science Education Program, Discovery Days, Saturday Academy, SMILE, and Science Connections with the Portland public schools.
Workshops and professional continuing education programs can be created for business leaders, natural resource professionals, Extension agents and others. Presentations will be made to national and international panels, and publications prepared for national audiences.
An advisory board is being set up to guide the actions of the new program, with experts from agriculture, biotechnology of animals, ethics in natural resource biotechnology, policy development, business, economics, science education, and agricultural Extension. The web site, still under development, is at http://wwwdata.forestry.oregonstate.edu/orb/.
Educators say the new program should also aid more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate degree programs at OSU, in which students should be informed on a broad range of biotechnology issues.