Biotechnology offers solutions to agriculture, health, waste management, security, and other sectors. However its promises have not been fully realised due to a mix of technical, socio-political, and economic factors. To make meaningful progress in Africa, a lot of work must be done to close gaps in the research-policy-implementation nexus. As new technologies emerge, communication will be key in highlighting their potential while addressing challenges or concerns. This was the rallying call for the third Africa Biennial Bioscience Communication (ABBC) Symposium held from 29 to 30 August in Pretoria, South Africa. It held under the theme “Getting it Right: Communicating about Genome Editing”. I was honoured to have been invited, and I had a close-up experience of bioscience communication from the various sessions.
The programme featured speakers from research, policy, science communication practice, and the media, from around the world. This allowed for multiple perspectives from professional as well as personal experiences. Prof. Yaye Gassama, Chair of Africa Union High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) gave a keynote address on “Fast-tracking Africa’s Development and Transformation Process: The role of Genome Editing”. She stressed the importance of public understanding to adoption of genome editing, and the need for regulatory biosafety frameworks that allow for responsible and ethical use of genome-editing technologies.
The three core themes explored during the symposium were “Overview of the Global Genome Editing Policy and Regulatory Landscape”, “Framing the Genome Editing Narrative”, and “Addressing Stakeholder Complexity”. Speakers shared critical insights to address the multi-faceted issues likely to arise in genome editing communication. Additionally, we had case studies, group exercises, and a policy dialogue. I also participated in a science café examining how to close the gap between scientists and the media in bioscience communication.
I have gained valuable insights from ABBC 2019. First, I learnt about current advances in biotech, especially the role of CRISPR-Cas9 system in delivering affordable, versatile, and precise genomic editing. This has great implications for agriculture and health in Africa. Also, the experiences of various countries such as Argentina, the United States, and South Africa in regulation of GMO and genome-editing products were enlightening. For example, I learnt that the onset of genome editing in Argentina led to more smaller and medium-sized companies creating products for the market. Another key takeaway was the importance of stakeholder analysis in determining the platforms, language, and approaches used when engaging scientists, farmers, the media, regulators, and organised groups.
The importance of traditional and digital media was emphasised. We shared highlights of the symposium with the hashtags #GetCRISPRight and #ABBC2019. Interestingly I ended up being selected as the Social Media Influencer of the conference, possibly due to the engagement generated by my posts. Networking at ABBC 2019 with both established and emerging practitioners was excellent. I had many meaningful conversations and walked away with some contacts.
CRISPR-Cas9 and allied tools could offer African researchers and entrepreneurs a pathway into the new era of bioinnovation, which would then lead to useful products to address food security and safeguard human health. Effective communication would be key to the development of appropriate regulations, and public acceptance. ABBC 2019 did an excellent job by starting this conversation.
Gameli Adzaho is the Lead, Global Lab Network, Ghana. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org