‘Genomics? Oh, tinkering with genes!’
Scientists should think much harder about the names they give to new scientific techniques. If a name has negative associations — however unjustified — that can impede society’s acceptance of the technology.
© Paul Gerlach
This conclusion comes from the researcher Reginald Boersma in a study for which he recently obtained his PhD with supervisor and philosophy professor Bart Gremmen. Naming is framing is the appropriate title of his thesis, with the subtitle The public understanding of scientific names. That public understanding is the subject of his research. Or rather, the misunderstanding caused by names such as genomics, nanotechnology, synthetic meat and CRISPR-Cas.
Boersma, who studied Social Psychology in Groningen, focused on the concept of genomics-assisted breeding, or genomics in short, in his research. The term refers to the use of genetic analysis in plant breeding. Researchers check whether the genes for the desired properties are present in the products of cross-breeding. That speeds the breeding process up immensely compared to traditional breeding where the properties only become visible once the plant grows.
Genomics is basically an advanced form of classic plant breeding. But does the general public see it that way? No, according to Boersma’s tests. Laypeople associate genomics with genetic modification (GM) because for them the name evokes the genetic tinkering that is distrusted by so many. Boersma found convincing evidence of this in experiments with Wageningen students.
He asked two groups of students with little to no knowledge of genetics to give their opinion on genomics. However, he presented the technique to one group using the name ‘genomics’ and to the other using the name ‘natural cross-breeding’, which he thought up himself. The students in each group had previously received a brief explanation of either genetic modification or classic plant breeding, giving a 2x2 experimental design.
The results were clear. The students classed ‘genomics’ with GM and saw no connection with traditional plant breeding. The reverse was the case with ‘natural cross-breeding’, precisely as Boersma had expected based on categorization theory. ‘If people come across something they aren’t familiar with, they look for a category that it might belong to.’
‘Purely based on the name, “genomics” evokes evaluations that are the same as for genetic modification,’ concludes Boersma. ‘And when the name is “natural cross-breeding”, they are the same as for classic plant breeding. I was surprised by how strong the correlation was.’ What is more, there was no difference between people who tend to draw conclusions quickly and more circumspect people.
According to Boersma, the experiments clearly show that naming is framing. His message is that scientists should change their approach to naming new techniques. ‘They should consider the associations that a name has. Not to manipulate people or as a form of marketing, but to avoid associations that prevent a proper understanding of the technology.’
Boersma sees the MRI scan as a good example to follow. That is an application for medical purposes of NMR, a technique used in physics and chemistry. NMR stands for nuclear magnetic resonance. Boersma: ‘Doctors were afraid patients would be put off by the word “nuclear”, so they thought up the name “magnetic resonance imaging” instead. The emphasis is on the machine’s function — imaging — rather than the underlying technology.’
They deliberately chose a name that takes the perceptions of the general public into account, says Boersma. ‘Scientists often choose names that help them communicate with one another, but they lose sight of the general public as a result. I’m advocating naming as a kind of co-creation process. You could use panels, for example, to test the perceptions and associations evoked by a new technology.’