FDA: please become the source of “scientific wellness” information

Commenting on federal dockets is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. But it can have impact on the federal bureaucracy, sometimes preventing poorly designed regulations from rolling out, or supporting efforts that are valuable. A docket for biotechnology outreach and education was created for ideas on how to spend some money that Congress had allocated. I have some thoughts on this topic, as you might imagine if you follow me around the intertubz. Below I provide the lightly-edited and better linked comment that I submitted. If you read this before the deadline, and you care about quality information on biotechnology reaching the public, I encourage you to submit your ideas as well. Feel free re-use any that you find here. It was structured as 3 questions, each of which I address separately below

(1) What are the specific topics, questions, or other information that consumers would find most useful, and why?

In preparing my response to this initiative, I watched the webcast of the San Francisco open meeting on this matter. I also read the existing responses on the docket site. As painful as that was to someone who understands the science on these issues, the public comments represent a useful mining opportunity for the issues that are confusing the public. Sometimes this confusion is sown by activist groups, and sometimes from the credulous that have been misled by constantly active and well-funded misinformers. But in either case, there were certainly identifiable themes. People are unable to separate the science from their myths about certain corporations. They are unaware of the work that is done by federal agencies to evaluate the products of biotechnology. People have not understood the environmental benefits that biotechnology can deliver, nor do they understand the consequences of the alternatives, and of not using the right tools for the right situation. People are conflating many issues with biotechnology that have nothing to do with the technology. In short, a good role for the FDA and USDA would be to help to disentangle these concepts, clearly explain the regulatory processes, celebrate publicly funded projects and the researchers involved, and include farmers to tell their stories about the choices they make for their farms.

(2) Currently, how and from where do consumers most often receive information on this subject?

Consumers are receiving much of the information they have from dubious sources and largely from social media. Some of the sources are non-profits funded by the competing organic industry and its wealthy business owners, often using fear to create “sticky” ideas in the minds of folks who don’t hear quality information from credible sources because their echo chambers actively bar scientists’ comments. They also have a network of amplification that publishes the same content on many web sites throughout their ecosystem, which makes a small number of actors seem more numerous than they actually are. These sites also remove and restrict comments from scientists with whom they disagree, making discussion impossible. Other sources include cult-of-personality individuals such as The Food Babe and Gwyneth Paltrow or Mike Adams or Alex Jones, who lack scientific training or ethical constraints as they peddle “wellness” products that they claim will mediate all the damage our world of toxins inflicts upon frightened consumers. These groups and individuals have real and harmful impact on the public who consequently make food and medical treatment decisions based on bogus claims and misinformation about biotechnology.

(3) How can FDA (in coordination with USDA) best reach consumers with science-based educational information on this subject?

The FDA and USDA are obviously constrained by government regulations and standards of public presentation of information for good reasons, but they are really no match for the current rapid-fire social media environment. However, they are perfectly placed to describe some features of the biotechnology sphere and the regulations in place. But rather than a 20-page PDF on a stodgy web site, this information needs to be distilled to accurate memes and graphics. These should be re-usable products that other communicators can freely share in other projects that reach into downstream networks of scientists, journalists, and individual science-based influencers.

Another place that federal outreach efforts can stand securely on a fact-based foundation would be myth-busting. Analogous to the effective Snopes site, creating accessible and digestible responses to common misinformation topics would be worthwhile. Since the same myths arise like zombies periodically from the misinformers, spending some time on this would deliver dividends over and over. But I recommend not limiting this to biotechnology per se. For example, a common myth that I hear is that genetic diversity of crops has been squelched by corporations, and that only some heroic bearded farmer who has paper envelopes of seeds in his barn is saving crop genetic resources. Yet I know about the major public and non-profit repositories of germplasm resources (https://www.ars-grin.gov/ ) that exist within the federal system or that receive federal support. These unsung projects are perfectly suited to a photographic image of seed or fruit variety and the thousands of stored “accessions” (and don’t use that jargon), that would be sharable and re-usable memes and images for anyone to use. And it would alleviate their fears of shrinking genetic resources that have been instilled by misinformers.

Working with established creators in this space would be beneficial. Effective examples of these meme and graphic efforts have been created by the Biofortified non-profit team. Another good source would be comics creators. Commissioning art by science comic graphic artists would be very sticky and sharable. Numerous examples of these folks exist, and they are great at crafting short and funny, yet effective, messages. One of my favorite examples on this particular topic was by @BeckePhysics:

In just 2 panels it explains why label mandates could be misinterpreted.

To summarize my thoughts on this, what I think the federal agencies should do is create a resource for “scientific wellness” that has appeal and stickiness and sharability to counter the bogus unscientific wellness claims that spread widely.

However, I think that the largest impact would come from efforts outside of the constrained federal system. Social media works because various influencers with diverse networks reach into different communities. As a commenter noted at the San Francisco public meeting, many of commenters on this issue were women, and they were unfortunately propagating misinformation from their networks (such as the Moms Across America). Support for individuals and activities that reach women clearly would deliver impact. Some of my current favorite examples include The SciBabe (Yvette D’Entremont), whose edgy and hard-hitting writing has been featured in women’s magazines which have been a hotbed of terrible claims about toxins and food for so long (samples include: Don’t Let Yourself Be Convinced That GMOs Are Evil; The Unbearable Wrongness of Gwyneth Paltrow, but my personal favorite was: The “Food Babe” Blogger Is Full of Shit). These pieces are shared because they are humorous and compelling, and reach into places the FDA wonks will never be able to go.

Another example is the SciMoms. This group crowdsourced an effort and produced a film that could be used in schools, libraries or other public showings across the country with panel discussions to connect concerned moms with quality information sources. Similarly, the film Food Evolution that came out this year can also be used for spawning public conversations and has done so around the world.

Another effort that might be worthwhile is one modeled on the current activities of medical doctors called “ScienceBasedMedicine”. This blog has developed into a resource of quality information on issues such as vaccines, homeopathy, and unnecessary chiropractic treatment of infants, for example. So when someone on Reddit says, “my spouse wants to not vaccinate our kid — what can I show her to explain the problem with that…?”, you know you can go to ScienceBasedMedicine for a sharable and readable quick response in the precise time that it’s needed — parents’ decision points. In addition, these types of blogs can rapidly offer replies to the new flows of nonsense from misinformers that would take months of meetings to craft a response from a federal bureaucracy. In the case of food and farming issues, ScienceBasedAg with vetted scientists and farmers would be worth supporting.

Spending federal dollars on mainstream media might not be the best use of the resources. Recently science communication professionals were very critical of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s efforts in the Cosmos program and Bill Nye’s science program (“Can Bill Nye — or any other science show — really save the world?”). If a well-known scientist with great communication skills and superb production values cannot generate the impact that scicomm folks want to see, what other routes can we explore? Although I found the reach of Cosmos impressive and wide with impressive international spread as Tyson replied in the comments area, there may be value in smaller but more targeted efforts to key subgroups. I would recommend providing resources for less well known and younger communicators with smaller overall reach, but access in key subcommunities like YouTube and Facebook that are not traditional media.

For example, the most widely-viewed effort that I have participated in was a YouTube video created by the “Kurzgesagt — In a Nutshell” team. “Are GMOs Good or Bad? Genetic Engineering & Our Food” has generated over 4 million views in the 7 months since release.

Paired with a Reddit discussion for additional outreach, this reached a lot of diverse people in ways that other media doesn’t. I also saw this video reposted to other places that were unusual — including a typically hostile food discussion site and even a video game discussion forum. So these channels might be atypical and smaller than network television, but they represent a more targeted group than a broad mainstream media scattershot effort and are worth pursuing.

To sum up my comments: focus the federal efforts on areas of solid facts and foundations about the regulatory process and federally funded projects on biotechnology, as well as myth busting; partner with existing successful science outreach efforts to create concise sharable and sticky content for social media; commission and/or support non-traditional efforts into subcommunities to reach moms and younger audiences who are not obtaining their information from mainstream channels today.