University of Wisconsin–Madison

LSC faculty awarded NSF $450,000 grant to reduce polarization about new science

Story by Madison Brunett. Madison is an undergraduate student majoring in LSC and the Department of Life Sciences Communication’s 2018-19 Lenore Landry Scholar.

Gene Editing
Photo from National Human Genome Research Institute. Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, NHGRI.

Imagine having the ability to rid the world of genetically inherited diseases. Scientists have created a gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas-9 that allows scientists to edit heritable and non-heritable genes at a faster rate and lower cost. This could lead to the elimination of diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis in the near future.

An innovative technology like this raises ethical, legal, and social concerns. Many have argued that human genome editing techniques could lead to “designer babies”, for instance, with individuals or couples pre-selecting their child’s gender, eye color, height, and even IQ. Previous research in LSC has shown that a majority of the American public finds the use of human genome editing for therapeutic purposes acceptable, but opposes applications aimed at enhancement.

Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in LSC, Dominique Brossard, professor and chair of LSC, and Michael Xenos, affiliate faculty of LSC, were recently award a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue research that stimulates inclusive public dialogue among the public concerning the potential moral, ethical, and political conflicts related to applications of human genome editing technologies.

Scheufele is an internationally known expert in the public and political interfaces of emerging science and currently serves on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS) Advisory Committee. Brossard is a current board member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, Board on Life Science and is an internationally known expert in public opinion dynamics related to controversial scientific issues. Xenos is an expert on polarization research and is currently looking at the effects of new media on political engagement and public deliberation.

“Without effective infrastructures and protocols for facilitating reasonable public decision-making regarding the substantial risks involved, opportunities to guide these developments through strong public engagement will be lost.” says Scheufele. “Our purpose is to explore mechanisms to create spaces for deliberative and productive discourse across diverse viewpoints, values, and worldviews.”

This project is among the first to explore a range of processes and translate them into public engagement with emerging controversial science issues. This will provide ground-breaking insights into broader scholarship on biased information processing while aiding societal decision-making processes regarding substantial risks linked to rapidly-emerging technologies like human genome editing.

Findings from this project will be used to inform both structure and content of a real-world public engagement workshop in which members of the public will interact with each other and scientists to discuss implications of human genome editing. The workshop will be produced in partnership with Wisconsin’s Morgridge Institute for Research, which works extensively on public engagement. The Morgridge Institute for Research has ties to many leading experts on human genome editing and a record of reaching underserved populations typically not included in more traditional public engagement exercises.

“We are very excited for this research as it has clear societal benefits,” says chair Brossard, “The public is an integral part of the conversation, whether they know it or not. We are in an era of rapid technological innovation and media convergence, so it is important to enable broader public discussion and decision-making regarding moral and ethical challenges.”