The Department of Science and Technology has launched a Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) programme to ensure a clear, balanced understanding of the scientific principles, related issues and potential of biotechnology and to stimulate public debate around its applications in society.
A programme on the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) has been launched by the Department of Science and Technology(DST) in early 2003.
SAASTA, which is part of the National Research Foundation(NRF) was elected as the implementing agency for PUB by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), who are funding this initiative.
The overall aim of the PUB programme is to promote a clear understanding of the potential of biotechnology and to ensure broad public awareness, dialogue and debate on its current and potential future applications.
The challenges facing the programme in South Africa include:
The target audience includes all facets of society, with an emphasis on consumers, educators and learners. PUB aims to provide a single biotechnology vision for South Africa, representing the multiple stakeholders involved and engaging people at all levels of society. It also aims to develop expertise and build capacity in communicating this complex issue, ensuring the dissemination of accurate and factually correct information accessible to the broad South African public.
An emphasis will be placed on engaging the public in debate rather than prescribing specific views and will focus on new, innovative approaches to reach and involve diverse audiences.
PUB is a dynamic and innovative public communication programme aiming to:
The PUB programme is guided by the following principle:
Biotechnology is specified by the South African government as one of the innovation platforms of the future, critical to promoting economic and social development. With innovation as one of the three pillars upon which the new R&D strategy of South Africa rests, the government is committed to establishing and funding this technology.
Another related priority area is greater human capacity in the area of science and technology in South Africa, increasing the number of experts in specific areas, as well as the number of women and people from previously disadvantaged communities. Biotechnology is a technology of the future and the current ageing national capacity and expertise must be substantially built up to participate fully in this challenge. Science communicators are needed to “translate” the relevant science into understandable language on issues that people want to hear.
Biotechnology is a cross-cutting issue relevant for a myriad of applications, especially in response to challenges being faced by countries of southern Africa, such as the AIDS epidemic and the current food crisis.
The National Biotechnology Strategy, published in June 2001 following wide public consultation, clearly demonstrates the commitment of the government to the technology. With the establishment of the former Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICS) around the country which are now part of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), efforts are already underway to tailor research to meeting national needs and to filling the gap of entrepreneurialism often lacking, and to transform data into a commercial product, process or service.
In this context, it is essential that the populous understand and debate this technology being promoted and funded by the government. Both the economic and social potential benefits of the technology must be understood as well as the simultaneous safety measures. The lack of understanding about this technology is currently providing a vacuum for unbalanced and often, non-factual information to be disseminated, which has led to the confusion of the general public. In order to attain a common vision, efforts must be made now to ensure credible, factual, balanced and relevant information is disseminated and that the public is engaged in a dialogue, rather than receiving a prescribed view. A key message must be sent about the practical applications of biotechnology in different areas, including medical/health, agriculture and industry – and how this technology can impact the lives of South Africans.
The success of the PUB programme will depend upon maximum public participation – finding out what audiences want to know, as well as providing information on what they need to know to make educated choices. This dialogue should result in informed audiences, able to make informed choices at all levels. Results of the GMO survey undertaken in October 2001 involving 1000 South Africans aged 16-60 in major metropolitan areas indicated that the majority of respondents support biotechnology as a means to improve foodstuffs and achieve certain benefits. Just over 40% were unsure of the technology – indicating a significant need for awareness-raising and education activities.
With its unique history, SAASTA (formerly FEST) is the ideal organization for implementing this programme. Established in 1950, SAASTA has adapted and changed significantly over the years, but the original aim of promoting the public understanding of science remains.
In a global context, the current circumstances all point to the need for the PUB programme. With the complex trade issues facing the development of the technology in Europe, and extensive public opposition to the GMOs, there is a need for a very transparent communication process to prevent similar happenings in South Africa. Following the developments during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and the issue of GM food aid being rejected by several Southern African countries, the controversy is coming even closer to home. Within South Africa, biotechnology and related issues are also under the spotlight. PUB recognizes that an integrated effort, combining forces and expertise is needed – tapping into the strengths of other organizations/stakeholders and ensuring a consistent message from a diverse group of organizations and groups with varying agendas.
As with any new technology, there are risks. Yet we cannot take the risk of not investigating the potential of this technology which has applications in so many areas. We have a responsibility to de-mystify this technology and the controversy surrounding it as well as promoting it, in line with the government commitment while ensuring necessary caution.