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Anthony Wilson Works to Understand and Bridge Divides in Public Opinion Over GM Insects

Anthony Wilson_FB Live

Anthony Wilson studies how the biology of blood-feeding insects affects the spread of viruses and our ability to control their spread. Wilson, group leader in Integrative Entomology at the Pirbright Institute in the United Kingdom, first did public engagement as a graduate student participating in the Science and Engineering Ambassador program at his university. He found it rewarding to speak with undergraduate students about STEM careers, especially because no one had encouraged him in this way. Since then, his public engagement has continued to be part of his research career, as his work is inherently public-facing. For example, he coordinated closely with veterinarians to manage and communicate about the bluetongue virus during the 2006 outbreak in Europe. He helped promote the message that insects spread this disease, which has severe impacts on livestock populations, and that people can help in controlling it and preventing its entry into the UK.

Wilson is now part of the 2017-18 infectious disease-focused cohort of AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellows. He notes how much easier it is to communicate with people when you can directly draw a line from science to its effect on their lives or the lives of their neighbors, as in his bluetongue work. When he speaks with public audiences in the UK about the use of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos to address dengue fever, however, people may not see the need for GM in their own lives and so can become suspicious of it -- thinking perhaps there is a hidden agenda. In discussing GM, therefore, he starts with the problem it is trying to solve (reducing infections and deaths from dengue), and then presents the different options to address it. In places with dengue, where hundreds of thousands of children are dying from the disease, doing nothing is not an option. Yet Wilson finds it can be hard to make the dry numbers of deaths from dengue have a real impact, so he is looking for ways to structure his communication to engage people with the urgency of the problem.

Wilson is always interested in reaching people who are opposed to GM technology, in part to better understand what their concerns are (see this case study about a public dialogue event he organized). Wilson finds adults without children to be the hardest to reach, because they may not see a need to engage on something they’ve already made up their mind about. Wilson wants to find ways to get people to examine information they don’t agree with (rather than dismissing it), improve their ability to access reputable evidence, and assist them in how to identify biases and weaknesses in data.   

On the other side of the coin, many researchers, including Wilson himself when doing his doctoral work analyzing dengue data from southeast Asia, may rarely or never speak with people affected by the disease they study. This makes the research very abstract. He has increasingly seen the value of public engagement for researchers, noting that scientists learn from the dialogue and may find new research questions or angles.

For scientists interested in exploring public communication and engagement, Wilson recommends Café Scientifique, or other science cafés, as a starting point. He finds speaking with the usually science-friendly audience at such events to be a great way to practice sharing his message and seeing how they react. He says this has changed how he thinks about science itself. In terms of his expectations for the year-long AAAS Leshner fellowship, he has been able to carve out less time for public engagement than he had hoped. Nonetheless, one of his current efforts involves making flashcards about insect-borne disease, and he is implementing the UK’s request to researchers to show the impacts of their engagement on their audiences through pre- and post-engagement surveys.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.