I always get a little antsy getting on an airplane, but my anxiety has nothing to do with the physics of getting an eighty-seven ton machine off the ground and back again safely. It goes a little more like this:
I walk down the crowded aisle of the airplane scanning for a window seat and upon finding one near the wing, quickly put my bag overhead and scoot into my seat. No one else is in my row yet and so I scan the people looking for their seats. I am trying to give off the impression I am not up for conversation; maybe I should go ahead and put in my earbuds and get out my book. But before I can get my iPod turned on, a seemingly friendly face plops down in the seat next to me, “Hi!” With that simple greeting my pulse starts to race because I know what is coming next…
“What do you do?”
“I’m a scientist.”
“That’s cool, where?”
Then a moment of apprehensive tension arrives. What is going to come next? Am I going to get lucky and hear, “that’s really awesome,” or will it be the dreaded, “you work WHERE?”
When I started my career at Monsanto, the field of agricultural biotechnology was in its infancy. My discussions about working in science and agriculture were never contentious. But as farmers began to see the benefits of genetically modified crops on their farms, and the field, so to speak, started to grow, the public controversy around genetic manipulation of our food also sprouted.
As scientists, we are trained to deal in hypotheses, experimentation, data, and refinement. We live in a world of evidence. We write up our ideas and observations and submit them for scrutiny by our peers. Then if our science stands up to this review, our work is sent out into the public. Once our science is published, it is up for analysis by anyone. And in the age of the internet, that “anyone” isn’t necessarily a scientist.
My field does not have a monopoly on controversy, particularly within the field of chemistry. It used to be that controversy in science was confined to a scientific conference. Now in the age of blogs and social media, scientific controversies often take on a life of their own, especially in the court of public opinion.
Many times the opposition to technology can be quite intense, as is the case with genetically modified crops. It is in this environment where we often find ourselves putting on our earbuds and opening a book to avoid the discussion. But if we, as scientists, sit out the conversation, we are abdicating our responsibilities to the public to make our often difficult science accessible. And when we do that, we enable others to frame the debate. When we choose not to engage, it is the science that suffers, sometimes to the detriment of the general public.
On a recent trip, I found myself at a conference where I suspected there might be many critics of my employer and my work. I was worried about the potential for ugly confrontation. As I expected, I got the “what do you do,” question and I will admit to being nervous when the question was asked. But, I answered with confidence and to my surprise no one accosted me or called me evil. I had several conversations about the need to feed a population of ten billion people in the next thirty years and the many approaches it will take to accomplish such an achievement.
I don’t know if I won any converts. That is not what is important. What mattered most is that I participated in the conversation.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign.