Via Risk = Hazard + Outrage, Dr. Peter Sandman has an excellent article: Talking to the Public about H5N1 Biotech Research. Excerpt from a must-read:
Fouchier and others responded to the furor by organizing a research moratorium, aimed at calming the waters and buying time to make the case for unfettered research and publication. Soon after, the World Health Organization convened a meeting in Geneva, mostly of influenza researchers, which predictably concluded that research and publication should be unfettered.
But the group acknowledged that a time-out was needed. In a press briefing after the meeting, WHO’s Keiji Fukuda said one key reason for the pause was to allow time to reassure the public.
The “public” following these events is tiny. Despite editorials in The New York Times and a satirical monologue by Jon Stewart – and continuing poultry outbreaks and human cases – most people aren’t worried about an H5N1 lab accident or terrorist attack.
They’re even less worried about an H5N1 natural pandemic. Convincing people that the H5N1 natural pandemic risk is alarming is a tougher and more important task than convincing people that the H5N1 terrorism risk is less so.
Like the run-up to Asilomar nearly 40 years ago, the H5N1 research controversy is much more a battle within the scientific community than a battle between the scientific community and the public.
But let’s take WHO’s Fukuda at his word and assume the job is to reassure the public that it’s okay to publish the Fouchier and Kawaoka papers and okay to resume H5N1 bioengineering research. What are proponents of this position doing wrong in their effort to reassure the public? I’ll focus on just two (of many) issues: education and contempt.