Mediating Science and Society

In 1998, Switzerland's biologists had a narrow escape from what would have been disaster for the country's research community. Just 1 month before a national referendum that proposed outlawing certain uses of gene technology--including transgenic animals--public opinion polls suggested that the majority of voters were going to back the ban. The polls prompted thousands of Switzerland-based scientists to take to the streets to campaign against the ban. In the 11th hour, the polls reversed and the ban was rejected by 67% of voters.

This near-fiasco was seen by many as a wake-up call not only to Switzerland's scientists but also to Europe's and perhaps the world's--that public trust in science is not something that can be taken for granted.

Andrew Moore--pictured above--manager of the European Molecular Biology Organization's (EMBO’s) Science and Society Programme, does not take the public trust for granted. "I think that neither science nor society can afford such close shaves as the Swiss referendum," he says. A former biologist, Moore now works full-time building bridges between the scientific community and the public. He sees his role as a mediator of sorts between science and society, supporting researchers while facilitating public dialogue about the biosciences. It’s a challenging position, and it often puts him in the spotlight. But Moore sees his career choice as a good fit for someone with broad scientific interests, a talent for communication, and a thirst for debate.

Tackling Controversy

Moore manages EMBO's Science and Society Programme, which offers conferences to debate issues of controversy, such as last year's "Science and Security" conference, media workshops and communication awards for scientists, training workshops for secondary school biology teachers, and policy documents for government and intergovernmental agencies on issues related to science and society. The topics addressed during these events are selected by Moore together with EMBO's Science and Society Committee--a rotating panel of EMBO members who are also active researchers.

Moore sees two distinct responsibilities for himself in his position. One is advocating research--"protecting research," as he puts it. Moore believes that today's scientists are subject to unprecedented pressure from society to justify their work. On the other side, he argues that scientists have a duty to communicate what they're doing to the public. "The public are the ones that fund and consume research. Without public support, we"--the scientific community--"won't be able to do anything."

Public outreach is something that EMBO--along with many other scientific organisations and funding agencies--are taking seriously. "The time when the value of science as being self-evident is gone forever," says Victor de Lorenzo, a professor at the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología-CSIC in Madrid, who worked closely with Moore when he served as a member of EMBO's Science and Society Committee. "We need an interface."

You could almost say that Moore is that interface, or a big part of it. His job requires him to stimulate fruitful discussion, which usually isn't difficult because many of the issues he is involved with are, he says, "fertile ground" for debate. A wide range of opinions have merit--"With some topics, you can't say one person is right and one is wrong," he says--and an even wider range of views are strongly held. "It's fascinating being involved in the exchange and discussion of very different views."

Andrew Moore chairs a session at the EMBO Science and Society Conference "From Genomes to Cures."

Engaging the public means listening to, and taking seriously, all sorts of opinions, although engaging people who have views that might appear to oppose scientific progress can agitate members of the scientific community. Moore is prepared to do this. "It's easy to dismiss the views of people who criticise. But not to discuss these things would be fatal."

"Understanding and communicating between the two worlds," de Lorenzo says, is something that Moore excels at, but he didn't learn it from his work in science, and he didn't learn it overnight. Moore started his research training doing a protein crystallography Ph.D. at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s. When he felt he had spent enough time "waiting for the crystals to grow"--a prerequisite to bringing the project forward--he decided to cut his losses and use alternative methods to investigate his proteins of interest, which are involved in neurotransmission. But this approach also turned out to be difficult. Moore found that research "consumed a disproportionate amount of energy." Feeling unsatisfied with his progress, he realised that he sought some kind of "day-to-day" achievement and reward, something tangible. "I was yearning to see the applications of science," he says.

This yearning prompted him to take a job with a clinical research organisation (CRO) in London in 1999. Working as a clinical scientist, Moore's responsibilities included co-ordinating clinical studies, writing informational literature for volunteers, writing ethical review applications, and doing some lab work. "It was very varied and interesting," he recalls. And it gave him a taste of new challenges and rewards: communicating science to nonscientists.

But there was a frustrating side to this position too. Within months of being in the job, Moore perceived there to be a "glass ceiling" in clinical research for those not possessing a medical degree. His professional prospects, he felt, were limited. But during this period, his "urge to communicate science" grew stronger.

Project Management and a Creative Side

A year into his job at the CRO, a position at EMBO as a scientific administrator came up. He applied and was hired. His initial remit at EMBO included Web design, setting up databases, and organising EMBO meetings. The job evolved, he says, into creating the science and society effort and building it into a full programme at EMBO.

Moore's job has two main parts: project management and the creative side. Getting a handle on the job required "a steep learning curve," particularly on the project-management side. Organising events, especially, required strong project-management skills, which he had to develop. But the creative aspect, he says, is also essential. He and the others involved in the programme are constantly "thinking up new things." He's "incredibly creative," says de Lorenzo. "He comes up with two or three new ideas every time I see him."

Analytical skills acquired during his science days--getting a quick handle on literature or steering a debate at one of these events--have been very useful, Moore says. Communication, negotiation, and interpersonal savvy are the most important skills he draws on, and they are the skills he says he has worked on, not always successfully, since his days in the lab. "I now realise what a bad communicator I was as a scientist," he says.

Provoking debate requires challenging people's beliefs; doing this in front of a live audience requires confidence. "You need to be outgoing. Sometimes you have to be a bit of a showman." But, says Moore, you have to be careful, because showmanship can rile the scientific community. "Science is serious. You have to be careful not to overstep the line."

Moore's job is unique, but that doesn't mean that similar opportunities aren't available. Moore anticipates growth in the number of opportunities at the intersection of science and society. Particularly in Europe, there has been a deficiency in science communication. Universities and scientific organisations in the United States have a stronger tradition of public relations work; in Europe, he says, the area is still growing. Educational outreach is another likely growth area, Moore believes.

There is plenty to be done, says Moore, and he's looking forward to the challenge. Although the Swiss referendum happened nearly decade ago, "we all know that in the meantime, scientists can't reserve their engagement with the public to times of crisis."

De Lorenzo believes Moore has found an excellent career for his skill set: "Andrew does a fantastic job. He is to be credited for excelling in a poorly explored territory." According to de Lorenzo, not many people could take on this type of role. "We need the right individuals at the interface."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science 's Next Wave.

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