Feb. 22, 2001 Washington, D.C. -- 16 February 2001-- Will genetically modified food benefit society, or will it ultimately pose threats to human health, the environment and the world economy? These questions are debated in scientific circles, but the public gets just a narrow glimpse of the debates, usually in highly charged news articles.
That will change this week with the launching of a Web-based forum that will provide the public and policy makers with the tools to understand the debate over genetically modified foods (GMF). The information available on-line will come from top scientists in the field who study the techniques of genetic engineering and their impact on human health and the environment.
“Controversies Surrounding Genetically Modified Food” is the latest product of the SCOPE (Science Controversies On-Line: Partnerships in Education) Project ("http://scope.educ.washington.edu"). The Web-based project is the work of editors at Science magazine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and scientists at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Washington. The groups are collaborating in order to provide a balanced scientific view of related issues and to do so in a way that might be useful to educators, scientists, policy makers, and the general public.
“The challenge, of course, is to enable non-specialists to engage in the debate intelligently and critically,” said Alan McHughen, a contributor to the site and professor and senior research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “We do this by providing enough accurate information, balanced between being superficially simplistic and overwhelmingly technical.”
Science editor Donald Kennedy notes that the magazine’s participation in the SCOPE project is a natural fit. “Science and AAAS are concerned whenever new scientific findings and new technologies raise important challenges for public policy,” Kennedy said. “Genetically modified foods have produced a public controversy that demands good scientific information -- and that is what SCOPE was developed to provide.”
The GMF debate is the third to be posted on the four-year-old SCOPE site. The first two controversies focused on the world's declining amphibian population and on malaria and the use of DDT to contain it. The National Science Foundation is a major funder of the effort.
One of the architects of the SCOPE site is Philip Bell, assistant professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education. He sees the SCOPE site as a way to give students in particular a view of “science in the making. ”
“Before a settled notion about the natural world is reached in the scientific community, there is a whole process that scientists engage in to explore competing accounts,” Bell said. “Often, that is a controversial process. We are trying to bring kids into this process so they can develop an image of the nature of science that actually reflects the practice of science.”
In addition to commentaries on different scientific aspects of genetic modification of food, the site provides a glossary of terms, links to other relevant sites, a model curriculum for teaching the science of genetic modification, a resource library, and answers to questions posed to scientists by editors at Science.
The site has sections for educators, scientists and the general public. The education section allows teachers to design and post curriculum projects on-line, and encourages students to produce their own documents for SCOPE, and to exchange emails with members of the scientific community. Anyone who signs up to become a member of SCOPE is asked to provide an "insight" into some aspect of one of the three topics that now occupy the Web site. An interactive component allows readers of the insights to respond, and the responses are also posted on the site.
The SCOPE project brings together the worlds of science, education and journalism, that often lack understanding of each other’s role in teaching science, says Marcia C. Linn, professor at UC Berkeley and principal investigator for the SCOPE project.
“The SCOPE project enables scientists to communicate to a broader audience without wasting valuable time,” Linn said. “And by collaborating with teachers, scientists, and technologists we can understand a contemporary controversy from multiple perspectives while designing materials that capture the nature of scientific advance.”
Founded in 1848, AAAS is the world’s largest federation of scientists with more than 138,000 individual members and 273 affiliated societies. The Association publishes the weekly, peer-reviewed journal Science and administers EurekAlert! "http://www.eurekalert.org") the online news service featuring the latest discoveries in science and technology and other Internet features.
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