Education Won’t Do the Job
I worry that advocates of unfettered H5N1 research and publication want to “educate” the public out of its concerns. That almost never works. In risk communication and planning literature, this strategy is called “decide–announce–defend”: Figure out what to do; then tell the world that’s what you’re going to do; then rebut any and all objections with a mix of technical data and dismissive rhetoric. This is a thoroughly discredited approach.
Decide–announce–defend is especially unlikely to work when serious risks are involved. “How safe is safe enough” is a values question for society, not a science question for experts who have a horse in the race.
The dangers of concocting a potentially deadly pandemic virus in the lab are obvious. The benefits of doing so are less obvious. (Phrases like mad scientist come easily to mind.) So the burden of proof is on those who wish to assert that this is a sensible thing to do. Before making their case, they must first “own” the burden of proof, listen respectfully to people’s concerns, and join in a collaborative search for a potential compromise. Arrogant and self-serving rants about censorship won’t help.
H5N1 bioengineering researchers are essentially supplicants, asking everyone else for permission to carry out work with huge (but unquantifiable) potential risks and huge (but unquantifiable) potential benefits. I doubt that’s how they will address public concerns —as a supplicant—but it’s how they should.
Some of my corporate clients use the term “social license to operate” to capture their hard-won realization that they can’t do what they want to do if the public doesn’t want them to (and that that’s how it should be). Science, too, needs a social license to operate. The first step in securing your social license is acknowledging that you need it: supplicant, not educator.