Rethinking Plant Science Communication

One of the highlights of the 2016 Plant Biology Conference in Austin, TX was a panel discussion about the National Academies of Science review of genetically modified crops.  ASPB had several members on this prestigious review committee, including Drs. Robin Buell, Neal Stewart, and Rick Dixon, who convened a special session to discuss the outcomes of the report.  This session was valuable because the topic of genetic engineering in crop plants is publicly contentious, yet scientifically well understood.  The difference between public perception and scientific consensus indicates that plant biologists need to better communicate these topics to a concerned public. Maybe we are not so effective at doing that.K. Folta image

It was exemplified by a question that arose in the Q&A session.  Someone asked, “How do we better educate the public about this topic?”

I don’t remember the answer that was given, but it was along the lines of, “Just give them more information.”

That is completely the wrong strategy. It has been well established that the public is not motivated to change a position based on a deluge of data.  As scientists, that’s how we motivate each other.  We approach problems by trying to fill a deficit. We show each other our best approaches, get excited about new information, and debate interpretations. That works for us.

Sociologists, marketing experts and countless surveys tell us the right way to communicate with a public seeking answers. We should not try to educate them, at least at first. Think about it from the standpoint of a concerned, misinformed and maybe suspicious person’s viewpoint. Sadly, that frequently is, “The arrogant university know-it-all, paid by companies to lie about science, is going to try to educate me about my family’s food.”

This is why we can’t educate our way out of this. All of the scientific consensus in the world is useless unless we first establish trust.  Talking to the public is more a hostage negotiation than a teaching exercise.

The first step is to develop a relationship with the person asking questions.  We need to have empathy—understand why they feel the way they do, acknowledge their perceptions and experiences.

The next step is to establish credibility by finding common ground, what Aristotle referred to as ethos, the ethics of the speaker. This happens when we share our values, talk about common concerns that unite us.  Talk about how you want to feed your family safe food.  Talk about your concerns for the environment, and how you want to minimize costs for farmers as well as ag inputs. Discuss why you chose the job you did—what is it about plants, food or farming that gets you excited?

Here’s the non-intuitive part for us as scientists.  Once you show that you understand their concerns and share their values, you likely won’t need to draw graphs, analyze statistical significance, or provide Plant Cell reprints.

They simply will ask you if you think the technology is safe. Reply honestly based on what you know. Done.

The point is an important one.  “We know better” gets you nothing.  People are searching for answers about food and farming.  They are concerned about what they eat, and what they feed their families.

When we approach them as scientists and unload data and citations, they turn off. When you show them that you share similar interests in people and the planet, the same concerns for your families, then you build the trust that is necessary for information to flow.

It is hard for us as scientists to understand that facts don’t matter much with a public audience. Logic and reason are our currency, our preferred way of receiving and disseminating information. We trust based on evidence- but that’s us.

You can see why we have a problem. Scientists, companies, and agencies, if they even engage at all, don’t speak the same effective language as websites, books and movies driving the fear of technology.

In conclusion, in the emotional forum of food, it is not what you can teach them, it is how you can make them feel.  That is a very difficult lesson for us as scientists that are specifically trained to not let values and emotion cloud our interpretations. However, this reality is something we must embrace if we are going to establish effective communication with concerned citizens seeking honest answers, whether it is genetic engineering or any scientific topic.

Kevin Folta is a Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He also hosts the podcast Talking Biotech.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Plant Science Communication

  1. To vibe with common people, you need to engage in aspects of plant science that touches their livelihood. Because plants are at the centre of life on this planet, only we plant biologists can leverage our expertise to common good. Not to do so would be criminal negligence, would make us obligate parasites.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Yes! Too true. When I visit grade schools I ask the kids what they get from plants, directly and indirectly. It is slow at first, but soon they realize that plant biology gives us everything from food, clothing, shelter, therapy, habitats, medicines, oxygen…. we could go on all day! Thanks for your comment.

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