Demystifying Science – Seeing is Believing
The Wizard of Oz is a timeless film that still appeals to children and adults throughout the world, despite its release almost 80 years ago. Who can forget the thrill of the Emerald City, or the revelation that the Wizard was nothing more than a circus con-artist? “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” is a phrase used today to describe what goes on behind the scenes. The trouble is if you can’t actually see what’s happening behind the curtain, you’re left to imagine anything – both good and bad.
After many years involved in conducting research to evaluate the safety of our products, I’m still surprised that there are many people who not only don’t appreciate the incredible accomplishments of modern agriculture, but who also believe that its products and practices threaten people, wildlife and the environment. Where I see miraculous innovations that will help sustainably feed the world, they see a profit-driven industry with no regard to safety. Why do we view the world through such different lenses?
Much of this is due to a lack of trust. I recently explained how the general public has lost confidence in many of the institutions it once held in high regard. Conflicting accounts about the safety of food or technologies permeate social media, making it difficult for people to separate fact from fiction, especially when scientists themselves disagree over the same issues. Mistrust is amplified when the public doubts the integrity of privately-funded research studies, or if they think the industry is hiding something from them. In the mind of many consumers, what you don’t know may indeed hurt you.
is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.
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That’s why I’m pleased to announce that Bayer plans to allow public access to safety-relevant crop protection study information. By sharing what was once confidential information, we hope to connect the public with our scientific community in a way that builds trust and shows our desire to create transparency.
Most people have no idea that, on average, about 1,200 registration studies are required before a new active ingredient product can be approved for use on crops, or that only one out of every 100,000 candidates screened will ever be commercialized. Nearly all of the candidate products that do not survive this screening process are cancelled by the manufacturer – not the regulatory authority – because they don’t meet the high standards we set for our products. Those few that pass must then be reviewed by government regulators, as part of an approval process that can take three or more years. The entire new product development process, from discovery to sale, averages 13 years to complete.
I have to admit that we initially have faced some challenges in increasing transparency in regards to safety-related regulatory documents. That’s because protection of our intellectual property – including our own safety research – is the lifeblood of any innovation company. We had to analyze how to balance transparency with ensuring that business confidential information do not fall into the hands of competitors. Also, there were fears that the disclosure of obscure scientific information could confuse people or be used by others to unfairly attack the work we do. Ultimately, we concluded that public access to safety information outweighed our concerns about the potential misuse of this information in public debates, and we were able to ensure that confidential business information not related to safety was fully protected from disclosure. We strongly believe that informing consumers about our research is critical in a world where scientific debates are often framed by 140-character tweets.
First, we’re introducing summarized test results and evaluations, which will be available for download via a specially-designed web portal. Additional information will be provided through videos, infographics and other communications material to help put regulatory science into context. In the next phase, users will also be able to request access to full, in-depth safety study reports. We want anyone – from an interested person to a member of the scientific community – to be able to access the information in a way that is quick and easy to understand while at the same time safeguarding confidential business information. I was very pleased to discuss more about the leadership role Bayer is taking in providing public access to safety studies at the 2017 Future of Farming Dialog event.
Explaining safety studies doesn’t neatly fit in a fast-paced world that wants simple answers. Because “science” is never truly settled, responses to complex issues that seem to be equivocal are actually part of a continuous process that describes the normal path of scientific research. However, what we can do is to pull the curtain back so that people can clearly see how things work and why we make the conclusions we do – to help demystify the process. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, we really want you to pay attention to the people and processes behind the curtain.
And if seeing is believing, we think you’ll be pleased with what you see.