Dr Craig Cormick is, amongst many things, a science communicator. He has a broad background in both the theory and the practice of working with social attitudes to new technologies, and methods of community engagement. Particularly, Craig is interested in how different values influence attitudes and receptiveness to messages or behaviour change. He has engaged in science communication within the media, such as the articles he has written for The Conversation, as well as within academia. Craig has a PhD in Creative Communication and has published research papers on risk communications and risk perception. He has won a wide array of writing awards, as well as receiving the Unsung Hero of Science Communication award in 2013. Currently, Craig works as the creative director of ThinkOutsideThe (formerly CSIRO).
SBA: Describe your research/work in 3 sentences or less.
Craig: I undertake research into why people think the way they do. In particular, I look at their attitudes to complex and contentious technologies, and the way that people’s existing values and life views define their opinions.
SBA: Could you elaborate on your findings regarding how values inform viewpoints and how this could affect the public’s perception of synthetic biology?
Craig: I am often asked if my work as a communicator involves teaching the public about the complexities of new science and technologies in ways they can understand, and I reply, it is more about teaching scientists about the complexities of the public in ways they can understand. Public perceptions about synthetic biology are going to be based mostly on their emotive responses to it, and how they balance the risks and benefits and trust in their own minds. Very little of their perceptions are likely to be based on trying to understand the science.
SBA: Do you have any tips for scientists who would like to engage with the public about research involving gene editing and synthetic biology?
Craig: Attitudes that were not formed by facts and logic are not easily influenced by facts and logic. Engaging with the public should not be about explaining the science, but rather explaining its potential applications, how individuals will benefit, how risks will be managed, and how public views have been taken into account (and they’d better have been!)
SBA: Do you think we should have concerns about the ways science is progressing regarding synthetic biology and gene editing?
Craig: I think it is more important to understand what public concerns there are about the ways the science is progressing. There is a spectrum of attitudes, of course, but some people will always find a new science is progressing faster than their comfort zone. They need to be engaged with genuinely so that they feel a part of the process, and feel the outcomes are something they value.
The problem with GM foods was not actually the science – it was the lack of community participation, the lack of equity in who got the benefits and who took the risks, and not aligning the products with something the general community valued.
SBA: Any additional comments or thoughts you would like to add to your interview?
Craig: A key lesson from other contentious technologies is that you have to keep getting community engagement right repeatedly, and as soon as you get it wrong once you have slid back down the snake to the bottom of the board.
Colin Scott is a Principal Research Scientist working at CSIRO, Canberra. He also runs the CSIRO Biocatalysis and Synthetic Biology Team and he’s a Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform Domain Leader (Chemicals & Fibres).Read more
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