Striving Towards a More Democratic Science

There's no such thing as a typical day in the office for Helen Wallace, deputy director of GeneWatch, an organisation that works toward increasing public awareness of genetic technology and ensuring that it is used in the public’s interest. From writing reports on the latest scientific developments for policy makers and the public to interacting with the media and academics, Wallace works in an often-controversial realm where science meets advocacy.

Wallace's role at GeneWatch is to raise public awareness of the implications of genetic technology and encourage public, scientific, and political debate. "Important decisions about science and technology should not just be left to the scientists; the public should also be involved," she says. The work is not without its challenges; in her efforts to promote the ideas the organisation advocates, she sometimes faces of opposition, some of it from the scientific community.

An Activist in Training

Wallace studied physics as an undergraduate and then studied oceanography at Exeter University, where she finished a Ph.D. in 1989. A short postdoc followed, but disillusionment soon set in. "I wanted to apply what I was learning to the real world," she says, and she didn't find that opportunity in her academic work. Her next job, at a consultancy specialising in hydraulics research, allowed her to put her academic skills to more practical use, constructing models that were used to predict coastal erosion, but she wanted more.

In her free time, Wallace was an active environmentalist. She was a member of the Student Environmental Alliance during her Ph.D. and volunteered for local conservation organisations. In 1994, an opening for a Senior Scientist at Greenpeace with mathematical modelling skills was the ideal opportunity to combine her scientific experience with her passion for environmental issues. In this role, she worked as a scientific adviser, and the results of her work were used to help set the organisation's advocacy agenda.

Wallace's Greenpeace activities weren't confined to the laboratory. She also worked on the organisations campaigns: dealing with politicians and the media, giving radio interviews, and taking part in televised debates. It was stressful at first, she says; communicating science to the media and the public wasn't easy for someone with so little experience. But she was able to learn on the job. "I also worked with very experienced media and political lobbyists, and had the benefit of their experience," she says. Wallace found this experience useful later on, when she was called on to present Greenpeace’s stance on environmental issues to hostile audiences: like the time she was heckled by members of a workers' trade union at a nuclear power plant in the U.K. These experiences, she admits, "toughened me up."

Stimulating Debate

While working for Greenpeace, Wallace became interested in human genetics through an in-house project she was working on. Her goal was to build risk-assessment models that predicted the effects of radiation and marine pollution on people. Soon after, Wallace was recruited for a job at GeneWatch; her combination of scientific training, media experience, and lobbying skills made her a very attractive candidate for science-related advocacy work. For her, it was a great opportunity to combine these skills with her new found interest in human genetics.

At GeneWatch, one of Wallace's main tasks is to write reports on the latest genetic technology for the public, the media, and policy makers. The goal of these reports is to keep the public informed and to fuel debate amongst politicians, industry, and NGOs. It's a difficult job, given the enormous volume of the scientific literature on all aspects of human genetics and the pace of relevant technologies emerging in the private sector. Prioritising became an essential job skill; otherwise, Wallace says, "nothing would get done." Fortunately, Wallace is assisted by a few sympathetic academic scientists, who serve as advisors and as fact-checkers for her reports.

As she lobbies and campaigns for GeneWatch, Wallace meets many different kinds of people, and just like when she was working with Greenpeace, some of the interactions can be difficult. "You can get encouragement to hostility depending on what we are saying and who we are talking to," she says. A firm belief in the issues you are campaigning for and the ability to stand your ground are vital skills for lobbyists. "It is also important," says Wallace, "to have a good understanding of the science so you can understand criticisms."

Not all the feedback is negative. Wallace has also had many positive responses to GeneWatch, even from scientists who might disagree with the organisation's point of view. "Most scientists realise that they do need to communicate their research, [so they] do see some value in what we are doing," she says. Even GeneWatch's critics appreciate the amount of research that has gone into developing their arguments and opinions, Wallace says. These people realise, she explains, that GeneWatch's work facilitates constructive, sceptical discussion of current research, even if they disagree with the organisation's conclusions.

Wallace has recently started preparing research papers for scientific journals; one paper has been accepted so far--in a sociology journal--and she is writing another paper on epidemiology. She hopes to collaborate with academics on papers in the field of human genetics in the future.


Wallace's job takes a lot of personal commitment. She travels a lot, to give talks and meet policy makers and the media, among others. The work eats into her free time, but, she says, this is pretty typical for professionals who are passionate about what they do. During the less busy times, the job can offer a lot of flexibility.

Wallace sees a need for more people working at the interface between science policy and ethics. Communication between policy makers and the public on scientific issues needs to be enhanced, she says. Still, in a sector where much of the workforce is voluntary, there is a lot of luck involved in landing a paid position. Scientists interested in this kind of work can help themselves by seeking experience in science communication--presenting lectures to the public, for example--and by "showing an active interest and commitment to the issues of the organisation" you wish to work for. Volunteering is a good idea. As with many away-from-the-bench careers, scientists seeking work in the advocacy sector don't so much follow a career path as answer a calling and blaze a trail.

Laura Blackburn is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.