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Talking and Teaching Biotech

Biotechnology Education with the Public: Generating Insight in the Age of Information

Thomas M. Zinnen

Tom Zinnen is the Biotechnology Education Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center and the UW-Extension. The following commentary contains excerpts from a speech given at the GEN National Biotechnology Summit, January 24, 1994, in Washington, D.C. "BioIssues." Vol. 5, No. 1. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center, 1994.


We hear a common lament: Why does the public understand so little about biotechnology? But in this era of customer focus, perhaps we should ask: Why do we understand so little about communicating with the public about biotechnology?

Perhaps we talk too much - and in the language of Ph.D. biologists. Perhaps we need to listen better.

At the beginning of a presentation I usually ask the audience, "What questions do you have about biotechnology?" The most common one is also the fundamental one: "What is biotechnology?" We need to be very careful when answering this question, for several reasons. First, how we answer it sets the tone for all our educational activities. Do we lecture, or do we inquire? Do we tell, or do we engage the audience? Second, defining biotechnology also defines the community resources available for learning about biotechnology. If it's defined solely as applied recombinant DNA, then we seem to exclude biotechnology from most American communities - those without a college or a research hospital or a hard-core biotech company.

To help define biotechnology broadly, I ask my audiences for five things beginning with "F" that we get from plants, animals, or microbes. They eventually get to:

  • Food

  • Fiber

  • Fuel

  • Feedstocks

  • Pharmaceuticals

That brings biotechnology home, and we expand the list of communities with local resources for learning about it.

Most people know what a radar detector is. I'd like to have a "biotechnology detector" to help raise awareness. A little box that could fit on the dashboard, it would go off when the car goes by a place where biotechnology is used. Like a radar detector, the biotechdetector could be adjusted for sensitivity. At the "classical" setting, any place that uses fermentations would set it off: a bakery, brewery, or a cheese plant. Adjust the sensitivity to "recombinant DNA" and you might have to drive past a university or company doing molecular biology research to set it off.

Third, the language we use is critical. Avoid biobabble when providing information. Use analogies when giving analyses. Effective teachers often start with the familiar, and use what their audience knows to bring them to topics they want to learn more about. For example, when describinggenetic engineering you can either launch into descriptions ofrestriction endonucleases, or you can compare DNA to videotape. BothDNA and videotape are linear informational tapes that carry encoded information that can be decoded, expressed, copied, spliced, edited, and you can make copies of the edits.

Savvy businesses and individuals take the time to learn the local language when they move into international markets. Communicating in the new language demonstrates their commitment and concern for their new customers. Before heading off to Europe or Asia, you might take a Berlitz course in German or Japanese. You might seek the help of tutors or fluent colleagues. Agreeing to work with a local education program may involve a similiar commitment to learning to use a new language, in this case, ordinary English. I don't know if there's a Berlitz for Biotechers yet. But at the UWBC we're beginning to develop a program to help people meet a language challenge: how to explain their work using words and images that students, teachers and the public quickly understand.

Once they've learned the language, what role can businesses and their employees play in education programs? Businesses can provide materials, money, apprenticeships, and advocacy. Individual employees give the most precious component: their time, expertise, and commitment. Learning other people's language is useful in another way: you can hear and understand their concerns in their own tongue. And that will contribute to the educational partnership, whether the contribution is in materials, money or expertise.


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