Digital, physical, and biological systems are coming together in what is being called the 4th Industrial Revolution. The First Industrial Revolution left governments scrambling to create new laws to match the speed of technological change, and we are witnessing the same lag between technological advances and society’s ability to keep pace. The 4th Industrial Revolution is defined as the technological change and innovation being driven by ‘convergence technology’ – the combining of separate technologies and sciences. Consider newly developed gene editing tools such as CRISPR. Using this affordable technology, we can change the outcomes of biological processes that have been evolving since the first simple cells appeared on our planet. It is a tool that cuts across health, agriculture, forestry, environment, and energy. It also falls into the gap between those who can implement gene editing tools and those who cannot. Bridging those divides means addressing tough societal and political challenges with a strategy that reflects a broad range of values.
The first step may well be understanding that despite the importance of facts in effective decision making, they don’t rule the day.
The never ending 4-year election cycle and available budgets are key to shaping policy, as are the views of the general public who elect policy makers.
As researchers, scientists, and academics we must engage in a far-reaching discussion to forge a common understanding of the benefits and risks of new biotechnology, and a shared responsibility to incorporate it into our daily lives. Just look at the term “gene editing”. As the new documentary Food Evolution observes, “the three most terrifying letters in the English language are GMO”, and unless we introduce CRISPR technology wisely, gene editing may become 2 words that are swallowed up by the same fears.
We are all aware of the growing mistrust of elected officials and government, and trust in academics is slipping in the same direction. In its annual Trust Barometer, the communication and marketing firm Edelmam found that in Canada in 2017 “Academic experts” had slipped to 58% of respondents rating them as “extremely or very credible” spokespeople. NGOs did not fare any better with a 38% credibility acceptance. People no longer trust “evidence” of almost any kind – unless it comes to them through a source that they currently consider to be honest, real, authentic, genuine and trustworthy.
At the same time, however, an Abacus Data Inc. poll shows acceptance of ongoing or increased government support for university based research. Genome Alberta’s own polling in June of this year showed that almost three quarters of Albertans think innovations in genomics will lead to advances in medicine, and that two thirds of Albertans believe genomics will lead to improvements in quality of life. Almost half however are concerned about the ethical challenges. That puts us at a tipping point in making the case for science as a driver of economic growth and societal well being.
The public are not little Minion-like movie characters looking for someone to lead them. As the polling has shown, authority does not automatically confer influence.
Like those workers left behind by the original Industrial Revolution, people facing the Fourth Industrial Revolution want to be involved in shaping their world. They want cleaner air, water, and energy but they want to be part of making it happen. In Canada, our literacy levels and general standard of living makes it possible to be part of that process. Technology does not stop at borders however. Genomics technology that is practical here at home may not be practical elsewhere. We tend to view GMO versus non-GMO choices on our supermarket shelves as a right, but in some parts of the world sustainable agriculture and adequate nutrition are turning GMOs into a necessity.
The science community plays a vital role in explaining the options and in putting that information directly into the hands of the public and policy makers. Make no mistake however – this is not about education or the vague notion of ‘knowledge translation’. This is about taking on the role of influencer. The men and women filling the research pipeline are the ones who can sit in front of politicians, journalists, and bloggers and make a persuasive case for the introduction of technologies such as CRISPR. It is also from peer-to-peer, average people are more likely to trust people they see as peers, the “every day” commentators.
It is time for academics to step away from their closed University environment and, as Martha Crago said in a University Affairs op-ed, “We, the academic elite, need to reach out”.