How to communicate on sensitive topics without making a mess

17 December 2018
Communicating about your research can be quite challenging, especially when that research touches on
controversial topics like animal testing or genetic modification. Nonetheless, some of VIB’s scientists are fearlessly embarking on this mission. We would like to share some best practices with you in communicating about CRISPR and animal testing.

CRISPR-Cas: explaining it block by block
For Nick Vangheluwe and Gwen Swinnen (both VIBUGent Center for Plant Systems Biology) CRISPRCas technology is a vital part of their research. Nick: “It’s a shame that the debate is clouded by illinformed
ideas. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect everyone to be on board with the technology – everyone’s entitled to their opinions. But I do believe it’s our job as scientists to give the people correct, relevant information to empower citizens to develop truly informed opinions.”

“The secret is keeping it simple,” Gwen explains. “On the Biotech Day, we illustrated how CRISPRCas
works using Lego Duplo blocks. Our approach allowed visitors to understand genetic coding – which suddenly becomes less complex when visualized with colorful blocks. Our story was very straightforward: what is the technology, wheredoes it come from, and how can it help us? Even though scientists may feel that this approach overlooks important scientific details, it gives the public just enough information to understand
the fundamentals.”

“Terminology also plays its part,” Nick continues. “For instance, at our stand on Biotech Day, we never used the word ‘mutation’. The negative connotation with the term would only hinder our main goal: sharing knowledge.”

Animal testing: understanding through dialogue
When it comes to animal testing, Liesbeth Aerts (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) believes proactive communication is key. “Scientists often conceal the fact that they use mice or rats to avoid conflict. But in reality, that’s exactly what keeps the conflict alive.”

“In my experience, talking about controversial topics usually brings opposing sides closer together. Moreover, informing the public in an understandable, transparent way is an essential part of being a scientist. It’s our responsibility to make sure people get why we do research the way we do, not theirs to ‘look it up’.”

“We recently won the KVAB Academic Award in Science Communication for Infopunt Proefdierenonderzoek (Information Point Animal Research). The platform, voluntarily created by a group of committed researchers, facilitates a well-informed, open discussion by offering as much information as possible in an objective
way. Although the prize is a great recognition, our work is never done. All researchers must take it upon themselves to keep the debate going. So: participate in Biotech Day, comment on newspaper articles, or simply discuss sensitive topics with friends and relatives. Seize opportunities to use your voice and help tear down the walls around controversial topics, to change the image of scientific research for the better.”

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Infopunt Proefdierenonderzoek​ giving explanations​