CRISPR: The Promise and the Peril

DIETRAM SCHEUFELE, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, serves on a national panel examining the implications of human genome editing.

The committee, appointed late last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, is examining the clinical, ethical, legal and social implications of the emerging technology. Genome editing holds great medical promise but also poses risks of off-target genetic alterations and raises fears it could irrevocably alter the human germline.

Led by UW–Madison law professor Alta Charo and MIT biologist Richard Hynes, the committee will specifically advise on questions about how risks should be quantified and whether some aspects of the technology should or should not go forward.

The ability to “edit” genes to target genetic defects became a much more plausible process with the advent of a technology called CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which can be used to precisely target and cut portions of a DNA sequence.

Controversy arose last year when a Chinese scientific team used CRISPR genome editing on non-viable human embryos. The experiment produced a number of “off-target events” that altered unintended parts of the genome.

Scheufele has published extensively in the areas of public opinion, political communication and public attitudes toward emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, synthetic biology, stem cell research, nuclear energy, and genetically modified organisms. Web of Science lists Scheufele’s publications among the 1 percent most-cited articles in the fields of general social science and plant and animal science. Scheufele also serves on two other committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: a committee on “The Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda,” and the Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS) Advisory Committee.

What’s the focus of your panel?

The committee that I serve on deals with human gene editing research and its potential applications. That includes potential future uses that could alter the human germline, which means that edited genes would be passed on to subsequent generations as part of the human gene pool.

But of course there are a lot of applications of gene editing techniques in agriculture and the life sciences, with the attempts to use genetically modified male mosquitoes to combat the spread of the Zika virus being just one recent example.

What are the potential dangers?

Identifying potential problems or concerns is part of the committee’s charge, and our report will work very carefully through both the scientific complexities of the technology as well as ethical, regulatory or political challenges that might emerge. Many of these challenges are focused on specific applications, such as germline editing. Once germline alterations are introduced into the human population, some have argued, they might be difficult to reverse and to contain within a single community or even country.

In many ways, the benefits are much more clear-cut, especially when it comes to helping parents whose genome puts their biological children at risk of inheriting certain diseases. Many patient advocacy groups are especially excited about the potential for medical breakthroughs in this arena.

What is the charge of your study committee? Are there specific deliverables, and what is the timeline?

The National Academies gave the committee a fairly detailed Statement of Task that can be found on our committee’s web page [link provided below]. In short, we will examine the state of the science of human gene editing as well as the ethical, legal and social implications of its applications in biomedical research and medicine.

Our work actually follows a pretty tight timeline that includes a number of additional meetings and informationgathering sessions. Most of the committee deliberations are open to the public and webcast by the National Academies. Once complete, the draft report will be vetted in a very stringent review procedure. There also have been and will continue to be numerous opportunities for formal public input, including on the draft report. If everything goes according to plan, the report will be released in fall 2016.

What role will you play on it as a communication scientist? What expertise do you bring to the table?

Human gene editing shares a number of characteristics with other recent scientific breakthroughs. One of them is an extremely fast bench-to-bedside transition. In other words, the time it takes to translate basic research into clinical or even market applications is shorter than it has been in the past. New gene editing technologies such as CRISPR provide us with faster, cheaper and more accurate tools for gene editing. But that also means that we as a society must have many of the ethical, legal and social debates surrounding gene editing at the same time that we are developing potential applications.

That is why more and more scientists are calling for what Alan Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has described as an “honest, bidirectional dialogue” between the scientific community and the public. Interestingly, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 legislatively mandated public engagement through “regular and ongoing public discussions.” So the idea is not new, and researchers in the Department of Life Science Communication (LSC) at CALS were in fact involved in two long-term NSF center grants examining the societal impacts of nanotechnology and ways of building a better public dialogue. As a result, much of the research teaching we are doing here in the department focuses on how to best facilitate communication about emerging science among all relevant stakeholders in society.

What experiences from past science communication efforts inform your thinking about how best to communicate about gene editing?

Much of our work in LSC over the last few years has examined emerging areas of science that are surrounded by public opinion dynamics similar to what we might see for gene editing. This research has included work on public opinion on embryonic stem cell research, and also research on how non-expert audiences make sense of the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms. Our research program has also led to regular engagements with policy communities in Wisconsin and in Washington, DC. When I co-chaired the National Academies’ Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences, for instance, I worked with bench scientists, social scientists and practitioners to build a better dialogue about emerging technologies between scientists and the public. g What aspects of gene editing seem to confuse or frighten people the most? We just collected two representative national surveys, tapping people’s views on synthetic biology, gene editing and other scientific breakthroughs. And our findings show that concerns about overstepping moral boundaries with potential applications of gene editing in humans and “blurring lines between God and man,” as the question was phrased, are definitely on people’s minds when thinking about this new technology. In LSC, we will continue to track public attitudes, especially surrounding the societal, ethical and regulatory questions that arise from applications of gene editing.

Obviously people are already reporting, writing, thinking and talking about CRISPR. Do you have any immediate recommendations for how to communicate about this subject?

It will be particularly important to keep two things in mind. First, this is an exciting area for science, but many of the questions and debates surrounding human gene editing will focus on ethical, moral or political rather than scientific questions. And we as scientists should be prepared to engage in those discussions, making sure that they are based on the best available science.

Second, having an honest dialogue among different stakeholders will require a conversation that is—at least in part—about values. And scientists will have to resist the intuitive urge to try and convince others by offering more scientific facts. Our own research and that of many colleagues has shown that the same scientific information will be interpreted very differently by audiences with different value systems. The same science, in other words, means different things to different people. And public reactions to many potential applications of gene editing will be no exception. g

PHOTO – Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.

Science for Everyone

At dusk Dave Wiltrout steps out of his house and climbs into a Ford F150 to follow the lonely roads of the Chequamegon National Forest till well after midnight. At an isolated spot, he stops, steps out of the truck, and moves silently down the dark road. Then he fills his lungs and howls.

He’s hoping to learn from answering calls whether the wolf packs he identified while snow tracking the previous winter have added new members. A retired veterinarian who earned his howling chops while treating sled dog teams, Wiltrout sometimes finds that his howls are a bit too effective. “When they answer you back, it’s pretty spectacular. But when a wolf responds to your call from 50 yards away, and it’s pitch black out, and you are the only person for miles—that will make the hair go up on the back of your neck,” he says.

Despite his solitary treks, Wiltrout is no lone wolf. He is a citizen scientist, one of many volunteers who work with biologists, wildlife technicians and tribal conservation departments to monitor the wolf population of Wisconsin.

And the contribution of citizen scientists doesn’t end there. They are playing an increasingly crucial role in many areas of research at CALS and other institutions. Projects that incorporate citizen scientists benefit from an enthusiastic (and usually unpaid) workforce that allows researchers to conduct projects that otherwise would not be possible. And in return, citizen scientists increase their knowledge and contribute to issues that matter to them.

Data collected by citizen scientists directly benefits Adrian Treves, a professor with the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, where he explores coexistence and conflicts between people and wildlife. “The accuracy of the wolf count in Wisconsin is important to both research and state policy,” he says. “Citizen scientists working with DNR biologists make it possible to locate every wolf pack and attempt to enumerate every single wolf in the state.”

“The volunteers more than double the miles we can cover,” says Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist and conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “We try to cover as much of the landscape as possible to detect every wolf out there. Volunteers provide many more eyes and ears looking for wolves and searching for signs, and that gives us a better picture of the distribution of wolves in the state.”

The volunteer tracker program has been in place since 1995 and coordinates up to 150 trackers each year. Wydeven puts out a news release each fall requesting volunteers. “We get Internet inquiries, and I send them to our Wisconsin’s Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program website.” (This URL and others provided below.)

To become a tracker, volunteers spend a weekend studying wolf ecology, survey methods, conservation and the social and political aspects of wolf management. Then they get outside to look for wolf signs and do howl surveys. A second class is a day-long animal tracking class in early winter to identify wolf tracks, conduct a survey within a certain area and fill out the survey forms.

The wolf count culminates every April when scientists and trackers convene at the Wausau Days Inn and pull out a big map of the state. That map gets covered in Post-its marked by numbers up to 11, which is the biggest wolf pack in the state. Volunteer data is included on that map. Wydeven says experienced volunteers are as good at reading tracks as agency biologists. Volunteers also jump into the discussion to interpret the data, giving them an opportunity to participate and gain a better understanding of how scientific information is formulated.