On 22 June 2012, The Guardian published a fascinating article about the race to develop fake meat, entitled “Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact?”
The article tells a story of two scientists on opposite sides of the world who are leading the race to create the so-called ‘fake meat’.
There is Professor Patrick Brown is a tenured Stanford University molecular biologist. He has been working for the past two years on the creation of meat and dairy products. The San Francisco based researcher is leading the way on an approach that uses plant-based material in order to create a meat reproduction.
The alternative approach is to actually grow animal muscle tissue in a factory without the animals. It is being developed in Europe. Building on a body of past research, Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht is spearheading this initiative.
Without retelling the entire article, it will suffice to say that there is a potential for the science to succeed in achieving it’s aims thereby leading to what would be potentially described as a ‘revolution’ of one sorts or another.
As recently as February 2012, the two researchers gave a joint presentation at the AAAS conference in Vancouver. As is often the case with competing scientists at the forefront of their research in the same area of research, there is a tension between the pair. Nevertheless, Dr. Post concedes that Prof. Brown may win the race, but leaves a suggestion that he will have trouble selling the idea.
He is a genius, but he has a personality issue. He is very defensive. He is much smarter than I am, but he is not going to get this across to the public. He needs a PR adviser.
The foregoing quote caught my eye.
The relationship between science and society is in large part mediated by communication. It is often argued that scientists do not possess the greatest communication skills. Variable anecdotal and academic evidence suggests this to be true in a lot of cases. In the above quote Dr. Post paints Prof. Brown to be lacking the personality to be able to get his message to the public and would require PR assistance. Here one scientist (Dr. Post), whose communication skills we don’t know about, accuses another scientist (Prof. Brown) of lacking in them.
Communication of scientific research is especially important when research with societal implications of risk is in focus. It is therefore necessary to avoid the pitfalls (such as assuming that ‘the publics’ are ’empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with knowledge; conceptualising the communication process as a way to ‘sell’ science to the publics; attempting to persuade the publics to take one side or the other in scientific debate) in the communication process and openly communicate with the publics about the science, its potentially risks and uncertainties and societal implications without ‘dumbing it down’. Many people are willing to attempt to understand (and some do understand) complexity of the science and are open to multiple interpretations of societal implications. Consequently, if the approach with ‘fake meat’ will be one of straight up PR and marketing (if it gets to this stage), the public will potentially feel that they are simply being marketed to (For an alternative take on ‘science marketing’ see post here.), which will cement the existing polarization between science and society and reinforce the ‘perceptual gridlock’ (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).
Therefore, the future of ‘fake meat’ will be in large part contingent on effective communication by the scientists, who have a plethora of examples in history of good and bad practices, to inform the development and implementation of their communication strategies.
Hanlon, M. (2012). ‘Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact,’ The Guardian (online edition), 22 June 2012.
Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A. (2009). ‘What’s next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions,’ American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1-12. doi:10.3732/ajb.0900041