LONDON _ A major problem facing Europe's biotechnology industry ispublic acceptance. In a move to probe the state of public perceptions,Britain's leading funding body for biotechnology research, theBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), issponsoring a consensus conference on plant biotechnology. The aimof the first-time U.K. conference is to involve lay people indiscussions on how developments in science and technology areintroduced.The project will involve three meetings at which a panel drawnfrom the general public will consider the technical issues withthe help of a panel of experts. After two closed weekends, the laypanel will take part in a public discussion of the subject.Britain's Science Museum is running the project for the BBSRC."It is important that we are not seen to have fudged or fixed it,"said Monica Winstanley, head of public relations at the BBSRC.The project also has an advisory committee with representativesfrom different sectors. The representative from the biotechindustry is Ed Dart, research director at Zeneca Seeds.The BBSRC was recently created out of a merger of the Agriculturaland Food Research Council and the biotechnology activities of theScience and Engineering Research Council.Winstanley said that in addition to informing the BBSRC aboutpublic attitudes on plant biotechnology, another aim of the projectis to bring the issues into the public arena. She added that theproject is "not just an expensive way of testing public opinion."She also rejected any suggestion that the lay panel will act asa jury that will reach a verdict on the acceptability of plantbiotechnology. In all, the consensus exercise will costL80,000 ($120,000).The U.K.'s first consensus conference is based on a model adoptedin Denmark. First held in 1987, those conferences have coveredvarious topics, including gene technology in agriculture andindustry, genetically manipulated animals and the human genomeproject.The Science Museum to currently recruiting a panel of 16 peopledrawn from a wide cross section of the general public. Ads inlocal newspapers produced more than 350 volunteers for the laypanel. The ads said that volunteers would be asked to consider"new ways of using plants in agriculture, food, industry andmedicine." Imelda Topping, the project manager, told BioWorldToday that the selection committee would exclude from the panelanyone involved in the biotech industry as well as "experiencedcampaigners."The recruits will be involved in a series of meetings to acquaintthe volunteers with the technical issues surrounding plantbiotechnology. The process will end with a three-day conferencewith the panel questioning a series of expert witnesses. The endresult will be a report that will be sent to members ofparliament, industry and other interested parties.Winstanley said that the council decided to fund the projectbecause "we are interested in people's knowledge of plantbiotechnology because, after all the years of hype there is now theglimmering of products." n

-- Michael Kenward Special to BioWorld Today

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