Dr Sarah Hartley

Social scientists to explore language for talking about gene drive technology

Social scientists will work with the public to develop a new way to describe a pioneering method of altering genes to allow people to talk about the technology.

Emerging gene drive technology is a cutting-edge process which might help reduce diseases and eliminate invasive species by changing and controlling which genes are passed on to off-spring. It is a complex science with concepts such as “mutagenic chain reaction”, “selfish genetic elements” and “gene drive modified organisms,” however these are terms developed by gene drive developers who may not understand the language needs of others.  

Through a grant of £100,000 from Wellcome, a team of academics led by Dr Sarah Hartley from the University of Exeter Business School is working to identify the language, stories and metaphors that communities, policy makers and other stakeholders prefer to describe the technology and empower them to make important decisions about whether to use it, and if so, how to use it. Dr Hartley is working with local film maker, Tom Law to create a short film to allow the team to share their findings as widely as possible.

“People need to be aware of what is being proposed and how it will work,” said Dr Hartley, who is Senior Lecturer in Management. “Language plays a crucial role in that understanding and we will be working with local people to find out which language devices, such as story-telling and metaphors, they find most useful.”

The team includes Prof Sujatha Raman, Australian National University, Prof Jason Delborne, North Carolina State University, Prof George Openjuru, Gulu University, Prof Brigitte Nerlich, University of Nottingham, Dr Katie Ledingham, University of Exeter, and Dr Lucy Carter, CSIRO. Together, they will conduct focus groups in each of the four countries and compare results to consider cultural language differences.

“This is a timely project because gene drive technology developments are moving forward, meaning that field trials of gene drive organisms could be taking place within five years,” added Dr Hartley. “It’s essential that we learn how to talk about gene drive before important decisions need to be made about its use and so we need to cultivate a real understanding of what it means.”

Date: 17 June 2019

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