CRISPRcon 2020 Opens with Discussion Examining Gene Editing and Journalism 

Keystone Policy Center kicked off CRISPRcon 2020 September 1 utilizing a new format. This was the fourth year Keystone has organized CRISPRcon but the first time using a virtual format, which ultimately featured 10 webinars examining five themes over two months. The first week’s theme was comprised of two panels exploring science and societal narratives, how issues are framed, whose stories and perspectives are included in the discussion, and how these decisions impact our collective understanding of what is at stake and how to govern emerging genetic technologies. 

Narratives on science and society are shaped by the values and views of those who tell them. Our goal with the two panel discussions featured during this first theme of CRISPRcon 2020 was to examine journalistic storytelling and its impact on the collective narrative, as well as highlight certain perspectives that have historically been excluded from the conversation,” said Julie Shapiro, director of Keystone Policy Center’s Emerging Technologies Program. 

The first panel of thopening theme specifically focused on how news coverage and stories highlighted by journalists in a variety of forms are shaping society’s values and views on science in general and on gene editing. Panelists included journalists covering topics of science and technology, including gene editing, in health and agriculture. The panel session was moderated by Ting Wu, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), who set the framework early in the discussion by highlighting three similarities between journalists and scientists: deadlines, surprises, and critiques.  

“I think that the things you are asking about – especially surprise and critique—are common to journalism and science because we are both groups of people that are heavily invested in trying to be right,” said Tamar Haspel, a columnist for the Washington Post. 

Haspel also tackled the notion of bias and how critique should be used to help check bias at the door when needed. 

Similarly, panelist Elliot Kirschner, executive producer for Human Nature and the Wonder Collaborativesaid, I think that what the best journalists and the best scientists have is skepticism…skepticism not cynicism. 

The journalists lamented how journalism as a field largely does a poor job of covering science. 

“I think we should just lay it out. I think by and large the mainstream press does an OK-to-poor job of covering science. And I think the reason that is not because they get the facts wrong…but that most newsrooms I’ve worked in have nobody trained in science,” said Kirschner. 

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine at the MIT Technology Review, also expressed  concerns over science being thrust into the world of politics during the COVID-10 pandemic, making it subject to the polarization that often inhibits progress. 

“With a pandemic, now suddenly, biotech and science has been sucked up into this political conversation, which is incredibly interesting but also excruciatingly stupid because there’s only two sides,” said Regalado. 

The panel also addressed numerous questions from audience participants throughout the discussion, including how to incorporate different perspectives that are often ignored or avoided, journalists participating in a feedback loop, and challenges to the notion that journalism is apolitical. The full discussion is available below.