Caught in the Ag Biotech Crossfire

Matt Nisbet

How U.S. Universities Can Engage the Public About Scientific Controversy

The past decade has been witness to significant scientific and economic developments related to agricultural biotechnology, otherwise known as genetically-modified (GM) agriculture.1 The technology has met with strong public resistance in Europe, but has been widely adopted in the United States with little public attention or controversy.

U.S. environmental and consumer groups in recent years, however, have prioritized public campaigns against GM agriculture, while biotechnology companies have hired public relations firms to conduct a global advertising and promotion campaign. A recent review of past public opinion trends by James Shanahan and his colleagues at Cornell University concluded that U.S. public awareness and concern over GM agriculture has increased only slightly over the last decade, and has yet to reach levels in Europe. These preliminary findings on public attitudes to GM agriculture correspond with recent increased media attention to the topic.

Though current public attitudes in the U.S. may still stray towards the ambivalent, agricultural biotechnology is likely to be one of the most prominent technological and scientific developments of the next decade. Widespread claims of the technology’s brightest benefits will be increasingly countered by allegations regarding GM agriculture’s darkest perils. Universities and their scientists will be at the center of this debate, both as developers of new applications, but also as those chiefly responsible for engaging the public and policymakers regarding biotechnology’s ethical, social, and legal implications.

Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can these institutions pursue? In this column, I outline the problem, and suggest strategies based on past research in the social sciences. While the recommendations presented are prompted by the current GM agriculture debate, they can be applied as general guidelines for public engagement related to other scientific and technological controversies.

Universities: Caught in the Crossfire

As political controversy emerges in the U.S., and various stakeholders compete to frame debate, shape policy, and influence public opinion related to GM agriculture, U.S. universities find themselves caught in the crossfire. Historically, development of agricultural biotechnology has occurred as a close partnership between universities, federal agencies, and industry members. Academic institutions have benefited substantially from this partnership, receiving steady and sizable economic subsidies that have led to additional facilities and faculty, and increased prestige.

Not only have universities played a key role in the development of GM agriculture, but they also now find themselves as key sources of public information regarding the technology. In an increasingly complex society, the public and policy-makers turn to universities and their experts for reassurances and reliable information about the unintended consequences and risks of technological development. University scientists are often called upon for expert testimony at federal and state government proceedings, and past surveys of media coverage show that university scientists are usually the actors most likely to be quoted or referenced by the media. In a recent Gallup survey of the American public, respondents were asked who they were most inclined to rely on when it came to competing views on scientific controversies involving environmental issues. University scientists were named by 58% of respondents, in comparison to 28% of respondents who named scientists from environmental groups, 9% who named scientists from the Federal government, and 3% who named scientists from corporations.

In the communities surrounding some university campuses, there has been growing concern among local citizens over the risks of GMO release, and the ethical implications of university research. In several incidents, university research facilities have been the target of activist vandals. Of greatest concern to universities is continued financial support for research. Scientists in Europe report that strong public reaction has led to dramatic cut backs in research funding, an event that U.S. universities seek to avoid.

Although university administrators are likely proponents of GM agriculture, universities as institutions have a long-standing commitment to the appearance of impartiality in political controversy. Furthermore, from an ethical position, universities should consider any deliberate attempts at control over final public disposition on the issue well outside the boundaries of their institutional missions.

Universities are also faced with a high level of scientific uncertainty on the issue of GM agriculture. A solid consensus among researchers on the risks and potential impacts of the technology has yet to be reached. In a survey of agricultural science faculty at U.S. universities conducted by Susanna Hornig Priest of Texas A&M University, respondents generally believed that agricultural biotechnology held great promise, but were neutral in their assessment of whether GM agriculture might reduce plant genetic diversity. There was, however, divergence in expert opinion based on stakeholder interest. Agricultural scientists whose research directly involved biotechnology rated the possibilities of negative social and environmental impacts of GM agriculture as less likely than other scientists. In another national survey of over 1000 agricultural scientists and social scientists by Thomas Lyson of Cornell University, diverse viewpoints were found among land grant faculty that fell along disciplinary lines. Social and natural resource scientists were more likely to express concerns and reservations about GM agriculture, and held a greater level of reservation about research linkages between universities and private industry. In contrast to their social science colleagues, biological scientists were mostly supportive of moving rapidly ahead with GM agriculture development and adoption.

Public Outreach Strategies for Universities

Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, and a technology that is closely tied to institutional research and resources, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can the universities pursue?

Several courses of action based on past research in the social sciences can be recommended. They include: 1) sponsoring participatory public forums; 2) acknowledging uncertainty and strategically framing messages; 3) targeting specific publics through specific media; and 4) carefully monitoring public reaction and media coverage.

Sponsoring Participatory Forums. Inviting the public and various stakeholders to identify their concerns about GM agriculture in participatory forums gives voice to lay perspectives on social and ethical issues related to GM agriculture that may not otherwise be considered by “experts” in university settings. Going to the public to discover the nature of their concerns should be an initial activity of any communication strategy.

Public participation also leads indirectly to increased public trust. Participation generally fosters increased knowledge among the lay public of technological controversy. Informal learning occurs not only among the citizen participants directly, but also among members of the public attentive to media coverage of the participatory process. Past research has shown that increased knowledge can lead to increased trust of democratic institutions. Specific to science, greater knowledge among the American public has also been linked to positive perceptions of both science in general and genetic engineering.

These activities also foster greater feelings of efficacy in the outcome of technological disputes. Participants, and non-participants exposed to media coverage of the event, are likely to experience feelings of greater control and involvement over how GM agriculture impacts their lives.

Acknowledging Uncertainty/Framing Messages. In addition to sponsoring public forums, universities should acknowledge scientific uncertainty regarding GM agriculture, but where possible qualify this uncertainty by comparing GM agriculture risks to other known environmental and health risks. Besides providing meaningful risk comparisons, universities should tailor and frame messages that address the specific concerns of different publics and stakeholders.

One of the dominant public and stakeholder constructions of GM agriculture is characterized by the “precautionary principle,” which holds that where a technology raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if science has not identified clear mechanisms or possibilities for harm to occur.

Although application of the precautionary principle to GM agriculture is embraced by the majority of opposition groups, and may appear pragmatic to members of the lay public, it often confounds scientists, and is contrary to scientific evaluations of risks. The common response to the precautionary principle from the science community, and often from their representative expert institutions, is that a negative can never be disproved, and it is therefore impossible to ensure that some future unknown or unforeseen harm will not occur. Although this response fits with the scientific outlook, it is likely to have little meaning to the public and to members of the opposition. To opponents of GM agriculture and to many members of the lay public, the precautionary principle is unrelated to science, and is instead a value preference for caution in the face of the unknown, and for a slower adoption of new technology.

This gulf between lay and expert construction of GM agriculture means that any communication efforts centered solely on the scientific perspective are likely to experience little impact or possibly even detrimental results. The reason may not be because the public lacks scientific understanding or appreciation for science, but because the scientific response does not address the public’s concerns, and reduces GM agriculture to a question of science, while ignoring other social, political, or ethical perspectives.

Strategically Using Media. Universities should also promote coverage of GM agriculture among specific types of journalists and media outlets. This strategy has the dual purpose of reaching specific audiences through specific media, while attempting to limit coverage by certain types of media, like television, that have tendencies towards sensationalism or controversy.

Media strategies should be combined with communication efforts that bypass the traditional mass media altogether. Examples include university Web pages and sites dedicated to GM agriculture, the provision of information subsidies to food retailers and grocery markets, and communication with agricultural interests through the extension offices of universities.

Measuring and Monitoring Attitudes/Media Coverage. In order to plan and successfully carry out any public communication campaign on the issue of GM agriculture, universities need reliable and timely indicators of the changing opinion and media environment. Quantitative surveys are useful methods for measuring and monitoring public attitudes because of their relatively high level of reliability, and given representative and large enough samples, their high degree of generalizability in comparison to other methods. In the careful design of surveys, the institutional resources of universities can be of great assistance, employing faculty researchers and university-sponsored survey centers in the development, implementation, and analysis of surveys.

Quantitative surveys should be complimented by the use of qualitative investigations including case studies, focus groups, and interviews. Although these methods have less generalizability and reliability than quantitative surveys, the open-ended nature of the questions posed in these contexts allows for greater exploration of various social constructions and meanings linked to the GM agriculture issue.

At the beginning of public engagement efforts, the results of quantitative and qualitative measurement of attitudes combined with the feedback from initial public participation forums allows for the informed development of messages and strategies. Continued measurement of attitudes enables the anticipation of any adaptations needed during the course of the communication campaign.

Furthermore, policy makers, interest groups, and industry members are generally sensitive to shifts in public opinion, and the prevailing climate of public opinion can be a possible indicator of their strategies and actions. In this direction, it is recommended that expert institutions carry-out periodic quantitative and qualitative assessment of the attitudes towards the GM agriculture debate among journalists, elected representatives, industry members, and interest group leaders.

Surveys of public attitudes should be conducted in conjunction with surveys of media coverage. Not only does media coverage influence public opinion, but it also impacts policy-making. Past research has shown that policymakers often consider the media agenda to be the public agenda, and regard media coverage to be a better indicator then polls of public sentiment.

No “Magical Key” to Public Engagement

The communication strategies presented here are not comprehensive in nature, but they do provide general guidelines for public engagement by universities, and are based on relevant research from the social sciences. In some instances, these recommendations have already been implemented at varying levels across regulatory agencies and universities. What should be clear from the review of these public engagement strategies is that there is no “magical key” available for unlocking public acceptance and understanding of emerging science and technology disputes. Indeed, scientific calculations of risk and rational estimations of technological impact comprise only one part of public debate. As recent history indicates, the outcome of the GM agriculture controversy is more likely to turn on social constructions of the technology based on politics, ideologies, values, and economics than on any scientific perspective. Universities therefore must invest in careful estimations and explorations of these social dimensions of technological controversy before and during any public engagement efforts.


  1. A “GM,” gene-altered, or biotech crop is “transgenic,” meaning that the crop bears a gene from a different species, or that it over expresses or under expresses one of its own genes. To date, crops have been genetically modified to effect ripening; resist frost, drought and herbicide; produce more of the edible plant; increase levels of nutrients; produce proteins toxic to pests; produce non-natural products in plants such as vaccines; and remove heavy metals from soil.

Web Resources:

Recommended Readings:

  • Dierkes, M. & Von Grote, C., (Eds.) 2000. Between understanding and trust: The public, science and technology . New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.
  • Gaskell, G., N. Allum, M. Bauer, J. Durant, A. Allansdottir, H. Bonfadelli, D. Boy, S. de Cheveigné, B. Fjaestad, J.M. Gutteling, J. Hampel, E. Jelsøe, J.C. Jesuino, M. Kohring, N. Kronberger, C. Midden, T.H. Nielsen, A. Przestalski, T. Rusanen, G. Sakellaris, H. Torgersen, T. Twardowski and W. Wagner. 2000. Biotechnology and the European public. Nature Biotechnology, 18(9): 935-938.
  • Lyson, T.A. 2001. How do agricultural scientists view advanced biotechnologies? Chemical Innovation, 31(4):50-53.
  • Nottingham, S. 1999. Eat your genes: How genetically modified food is entering our diet. New York: University of Cape Town Press.
  • Priest, S.H. 2001. A grain of truth: The media, the public, and biotechnology. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Priest, S. & Gillespie, A. 2001. Seeds of discontent: Expert opinion, mass media, and the public image of agricultural biotechnology. Science and Engineering Ethics, 6 (4): 529-539.
  • Shanahan, J., Scheufele, D. & Lee, E. 2001. Attitudes about biotechnology and genetically modified organisms. Public Opinion Quarterly (forthcoming).
  • Krimsky, S. (1991). Biotechnics and society. Westport, CT: Praeger
  • Krimsky, S. & Wrubel, R.P. (1996). Agricultural biotechnology and the environment : Science, policy, and social issues. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, a CSI technical consultant, and writes regularly on science, politics, and a more focused life at