Sweta Chakraborty | Uncategorized
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The Fate of the Genomic Revolution: Can Public Fears Inform Better Policy?

On September 15th, 2016 I gave a Keynote speech at the NZBIO Annual Conference in Auckland.  The following is the abstract of my talk:

In recent years, biotech innovations have rapidly changed the landscape regarding solutions to the world’s most pressing and immediate threats to the human condition.  Food security, agriculture sustainability, and human health are just some basic needs that could experience immense benefit from the promises in the field.  However, this promise can only be achieved if the values represented by the technology and the technology providers are culturally, ethically and economically acceptable to the communities where they will be deployed.  The varying perspectives towards the commercialization of biotechnology advances have resulted in polarized views towards the many products already developed and in the pipeline.  Decision makers are now tasked with finding solutions in an environment characterized by enthusiasm for future breakthroughs, but also by a wariness and distrust that has the power to stifle any potential benefits.  Advancing global harmonization in the regulatory space has proven considerably challenging for influential policy makers, credible scientists, and societal stakeholders, particularly in regards to the public backlash against technologies perceived as “unnatural” or “unsafe.”  It is evident that multilateral efforts and interdisciplinary collaborations will be required to advance harmonization as well as to address the incredibly complex global challenge of improving public perceptions towards biotechnology advancements.  Understanding both individual and societal tolerances of perceived risk is the first critical step in successfully communicating the credible science that can inform global policy.  Public acceptance and cooperation with measures towards better regulation of the promising science and technology solutions stemming from biotech is both achievable and within our grasp given what we now know about risk perception, eliciting behavior change, and the powerful role of social media.

Food Security and Diet-Linked Public Health Challenges

How does nutritional value within the food supply impacts different segments of the population?  Different segments have distinct phenotypes, reflective of the variety of genetic backgrounds found throughout society.  The recognition that the variability of phenotypes within a population causes individual groups to respond differently to the nutritional values in foods has become an important part of both scientific research and, more recently, public policy.

Food Safety, Security, and Defense (FSSD), identified by participating governments, international organizations, and the private sector as major policy priorities, has been the topic of an ongoing series of invitation-only conferences convened by the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP).  The fourth FSSD conference is being organized in partnership with North Dakota State University and will be convened September 20–23, 2015 in Fargo, North Dakota.  This ISGP conference will focus on using food diversity to address global chronic disease challenges and how “Food Security and Diet Linked Public Health Challenges” are particularly affecting American Indian communities.  This conference is part of a series of FSSD conference on “Nutrition, Sustainable Agriculture, and Human Health.”

All ISGP conferences are conducted in “not-for-attribution” environments (Chatham House Rule). This ongoing series of ISGP conferences is devoted to linking scientifically credible understanding to the formulation and implementation of sound, effective domestic and international policies concerning the diverse aspects of the safety, security, and defense throughout our increasingly global food supply.

The full conference announcement can be viewed at:

http://scienceforglobalpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Food-Security-and-Diet-Linked-Public-Health-Challenges-announcement.pdf

Why is Communicating Pharmaceutical Risks and Benefits So Hard?

Pharmaceuticals are developed for patients who behave according to perceptions, not just facts, about medicines. How should we respond to demands for higher quality information, greater openness and transparency with round-the-clock media scrutiny? What is the role of trust and how can we strengthen trustworthiness in communication? How should the evidence behind good communication impact regulatory processes? How can we assess whether communication is effective in changing behavior? Questions like these will be discussed in a forum held as part of the Drug Information Association’s (DIA) annual meeting in Washington DC June 14-18 as we aim to address this core risk minimization activity for any pharmaceutical organization.  Further details for the meeting and my talk can be seen at: Dia Annual Meeting

Tips and hiring criteria for a career in global science policy

My career in science policy was not planned. However, looking back on how I got to my current position as the Associate Director of the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP), I have been able to identify the critical decisions and junctures in my career that has led to my current position. First and foremost, I developed an expertise in a specific subject matter – risk and behavioral science. To ensure a long and upwardly mobile career in science policy, obtaining subject matter expertise through graduate studies and/or professional experience is crucial. It is also critical to network and seek out interdisciplinary meetings, conferences, and events on current policy topics (e.g., genetic engineering) that attract individuals from various sectors (e.g., government, academia, industry).   It was at one of these meetings held by the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) several years ago that I met the director of the ISGP, Dr. George Atkinson. I joined the ISGP as a Senior Fellow and was appointed the Associate Director in January 2015.

 

My typical day at the ISGP consists of training and mentoring new and existing staff. I oversee daily staff activities, which include researching, preparing, writing and editing background materials and reports for the variety of topics that our institute covers. I am also responsible for identifying, building and maintaining relationships with key collaborators (e.g., funding bodies, academic institutions). Finally, I am responsible allocating the organization, management, and implementation of ISGP’s programs, which currently include our Signature Series (e.g., emerging and persistent infectious diseases), our ISGP Academic Partnerships (IAP) program, and our program on Global Challenges (e.g., climate change). These programs consist of specific series to which staff is assigned to help plan, organize, and convene ongoing series of debates.

 

For potential candidates for hire, the ISGP looks for academic and professional experience concerning the evaluation of scientific research and conclusions as well as strong oral and written communication skills. We also require candidates to demonstrate good problem-solving skills, a keen attention to detail – especially with respect to recording the substance of oral debates, editing notes from a variety of sources, and interviewing subject matter experts to obtain clarification of ideas. Strong candidates for the ISGP will possess the ability to conform to rapidly shifting priorities and demands. Candidates must be able to respond well to direction, adjustments, and alterations promptly and efficiently. We look for candidates who have the ability to work independently in a fast-paced environment as well as a strong ability to meet target deadlines and manage their time effectively. Successful candidates will be able to work both independently and in a team-oriented, collaborative environment.

 

Once hired, new staff members are integrated into all aspects of working for the institute. Staff regularly interview and correspond with scientific and policy experts, both in the United States and abroad, to determine the relevance of their professional expertise to the topics on the agenda of each ISGP conference.  Staff members are asked to assess the level of communication skills of debate presenters/audience participants that are necessary to promote vigorous, critical debate within the scope of ISGP conferences and ultimately contribute to the selection of potential debate presenters/audience participants for each ISGP conference. Staff members are required to justify their recommendations through networking, extensive correspondence, selective interviews, and a detailed familiarity with the related scientific and policy literature.

 

Staff members must be responsive to collective staff needs for conference planning and be able to work closely with all ISGP staff on a variety of issues at each ISGP conference. Staff members must also take an active role in writing and editing pre- and post-conferences material and publications in tandem with other members. Routine correspondence with colleagues and providing regular updates to senior staff is critical for the institute’s overall success. Because ISGP staff is located throughout the United States – and some globally – it is also imperative that potential candidates demonstrate the ability to work efficiently and productively across time zones through tools such as conference calling, e-mail exchanges, and scheduled meetings in designated places.

 

Ultimately, the success of a global policy institute such as the ISGP is dependent upon the skills of the core team. The ISGP has set a high bar for the types of candidates it seeks, but it is also necessary for potential candidates to understand the nature of the work conducted at a neutral not-for-profit think tank to ensure that it is within their scope of interest. I highly recommend following the above guidelines for anyone looking for a long and successful career in the field of science policy and particularly with the ISGP.

 

My review of Adam Rutherford’s book: Creation

Adam Rutherford’s Creation is masterful storytelling that traces the origins of the book’s protagonist, life, from its beginnings as a cosmic event to its future potential for humanity. In the first of this two part book, Rutherford begins his recount by identifying the key historical figures behind the three great ideas in biology: cell theory, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection, and the discovery of the structure of DNA. Through these figures he describes how life began before moving onto how the manipulation of DNA has resulted in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. Each chapter closes with the posing of a question to be answered in the ensuing chapter in order for the contents of the current chapter to be fully understood. In this manner, Rutherford craftily guides the reader through the incredibly vast subject of creation in way that is compelling and understandable.

 

Rutherford’s writing style allows for easy reading of a very complex topic. He is conversational and humorous throughout the book, but he does not gloss over the details of the science. Readers will find themselves getting refresher courses in high school biology, chemistry and physics; however, this book will also capture the attention of a non-lay audience. Rutherford provides intricate details and knowledge that only a true molecular biologist could recount. The level of scientific detail around RNA synthesis is sophisticated. Equally sophisticated is the discussion surrounding policy challenges and the need for public engagement towards social acceptance of technological innovations. Unlike Life at the Speed of Light and Regenesis, the second part of Creation thoroughly combs through the unique policy landscape surrounding synthetic biology.

 

In Part 2 of Creation, Rutherford details the media firestorm following J. Craig Venter’s introduction of a bacterial synthetic cell, Synthia, which in 2010 demonstrated the technological capability to manipulate and build DNA. While years of genetic tinkering have resulted in the existence of everyday modified products (e.g., savoy cabbage) which have raised little or no public alarm, the moral and ethical outcries following Synthia and continuing well into present illustrate the extent to which the field of synthetic biology is misunderstood. Rutherford offers opposing viewpoints so as to not alienate less popular perspectives and theories, but it is clear where his support falls and how he hopes for the public to follow suit.

 

Rutherford makes a serious case for engaging the public to better understand the field of synthetic biology. He asserts that “discussions about synthetic biology and genetic modification must happen in public and with the public” (p.226) and they “demand rational, open, and informed discussion” (p. 227). Citing public perceptions of risk towards genetically modified foods (e.g., frankenfoods), Rutherford explains how erroneous yet prevailing attitudes towards modern biology could negatively impact the great potential of synthetic biology from energy alternatives to targeted disease treatment.

 

It is in the final chapters of the book that the necessity of the risk community becomes clear. For synthetic biology to meet its ultimate potential across various sectors, risk perception must be addressed. While Rutherford does not make any specific policy recommendations, his support of open and candid conversations with the public about the potential benefits and harms of new technologies hits the nail on the head.