The Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication Symposium (ABBC2019), which took place on 29th and 30th August in Pretoria, South Africa, served great lessons and a raft of resolutions on best communication practices that will facilitate informed dialogue on genome editing in Africa. Coming in the wake of varied excitement created by emerging genetic technologies, the symposium sought to interrogate various regulatory options and communication approaches on genome editing.
The irresistible promise to transform agricultural and healthcare sectors through genome editing tools was exemplified by almost every speaker at the symposium. The precision, affordability and potential of genome editing perfectly place Africa in a prime position to benefit from the technology.
One of the most resounding messages from the symposium is that a facilitative policy environment will provide a conducive atmosphere for the continent to reap big from the technology. Sound regulations will ensure full optimization of genome editing tools in transforming scientific, medical, agricultural and business fields on the continent. Dr. Ben Durham, the Chief Director of Bio-innovation at South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology called on African leaders to develop policies that are unrestrictive to the development of emerging genetic technologies.
Making bold decisions
Another key message coming from ABBC2019 is the need for Africa to demonstrate boldness in embracing emerging technologies. Regulators were applauded for establishing the Africa Union Biosafety Regulators Forum, which provides a platform for harmonization of biosafety systems in Africa and deeper understanding of emerging genetic technologies by African regulators. For the continent to swiftly embrace these technologies, ABBC2019 set the ball rolling by providing regulators a platform to interrogate diverse strategies for effective communication about genome editing.
Regulators expressed commitment to mainstream regulatory structures for handling new gene technologies as they vowed to emulate Argentina who have made tremendous progress in this realm. Kenya has also made great strides by being among the first countries to develop draft guidelines on how to regulate genome edited crops.
Language use was observed key in acceptance of emerging technologies such as genome editing. To get it right in communicating about genome editing, scientists were advised to use simple language in their conversations with non-technical audiences. Communicators emphasized that meaningful dialogue on genome editing will rely heavily on effective communication facilitated by appropriate choice of words.
A science café with editors revealed a shocking gap that exists between media practitioners and scientists. Challenges to public understanding of science have been partly attributed to inherent differences between scientists and journalists. Regular engagements between the two groups should begin in earnest to help bridge the divide and ensure accurate coverage on new breeding techniques.
It emerged that women’s role in contributing towards public discourse on application of modern bioscience techniques in food and agriculture is limited. Women voices are critical in the acceptance of new technologies and should be amplified. Science communication training is fundamentally important in improving women’s engagement skills on emerging genetic technologies.
Striking a middle ground
Stakeholder complexities are a thorn in the flesh in the advancement of gene modification technologies especially in Africa. Delegates at ABBC2019 did not leave anything to chance in addressing this issue. Again, effective communication approaches – such as connecting gene editing solutions to human health and leveraging on expert spokespeople to communicate about this technology – were deemed crucial. From the symposium, an important lesson learned when dealing with stakeholders with conflicting expectations is the need to strike the middle ground by addressing misinformation and appreciating opposing views.
Delightedly, the delegates expressed profound satisfaction that the symposium met their expectations. Over 90 per cent acknowledged ABBC2019 objectives were highly relevant while 95% rated the symposium useful for their work. Most participants indicated the symposium’s organization was top-notch, presentations well organized and understandable, and presenters highly knowledgeable on their topics of interest.
ABBC 2019 Declaration
Through a declaration, the delegates resolved to establish an African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing. They also pledged to foster open and transparent dialogue with all stakeholders, including those with divergent views on the technology. Further, ABBC2019 delegates demonstrated their commitment to encourage public participation in research direction and policy formulations on genome editing.
A look into the future
Going forward, more elaborate efforts to facilitate deeper insight on gene editing technologies must be seen. Stakeholders should invest adequately in putting up proper communication systems to achieve this objective.
Delegates’ aspiration is that once the African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing is in place, strategies and systems to improve science communication will be set, and that these will be a game-changer in operationalizing gene editing technologies in Africa. Participants exuded confidence that this Coalition will create effective pathways for informed dialogue and application of new breeding techniques.
It will be pleasing to hear success stories about gene editing technologies, and witness their impact on agriculture and health on the continent. All is set for Africa to record unprecedented milestones from this scientific innovation by getting #GetCRISPRight. Let us remember that rising early shortens the journey.
Dr. Margaret Karembu is the Director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, and co-Convenor, ABBC2019. You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org