As the Bio International Convention begins here in Boston Monday, the most brilliant thinkers around the world will meet to discuss innovations in the life sciences, drug discovery, biofuels, and nanotechnology. Most of us will have no idea what the attendees at the largest global event for the biotechnology industry are talking about. The convention website highlights a head-spinning array of sessions about such topics as oligonucleotides-based therapeutics, engendering painful memories of attempts at AP Biology in high school.
Biological advancements have tremendous benefits to our health, energy supplies, and global food supplies. But there is a darker side to the bio-industry, and that involves both the capacity to cause harm and the need for medicine to treat us should that come to pass. So, as the really smart conventioneers present their goods in Chinese, Japanese, English, Spanish, and other languages, those of us on the outside have one simple request: When it comes to the public and the threats that we face, speak in a language that we can actually understand.
Not to be a buzz-kill on all the excitement over how the sciences can transform the human experience, but one of the fundamental challenges for scientists today is how to communicate basic and vital safety information about the threats we face. Beaches are closed due to biological waste; warnings are given about the potential harms of seafood from the areas around Fukoshima, Japan; evidence of traces of strontium 90, a byproduct of nuclear fission, are found in fish near the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. These agents can cause significant damage to biological molecules, breaking bonds, causing DNA mutations, taking away the body’s abilities to repair damage, flush toxins, and manage inflammation. Too much of all that leads to sickness and death, and even small amounts can lead to higher rates of cancer and the possibility of passing on genetic defects. Again, sorry about the buzz-kill part.
But we have so little context. Most Americans, at least, are unlikely to know whether it is safe to go outside if, for example, the radiation level is 300 millirems or 3,000 millirems.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg devised a scale in 1935 at the California Institute of Technology to compare the size of earthquakes. While the tools to measure earthquakes have become more sophisticated, the basic scale has not changed. A 4.2 is a big yawn; a 7.3 means run for the doorway.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, developed in the early 1970s, uses five basic categories to distinguish wind intensities. It was actually inspired by the Richter scale. The science behind it, too, has modified and advanced, but the basic communication has remained the same. Hurricanes are so familiar now that we even give them names: For the 2012 season that started this month, Alberto marks its debut, followed by Beryl.
Numerical scales work. America’s short-lived foray into utilizing colors to describe terrorist threats was scrapped when it became clear that people couldn’t understand the difference between hues. And because it was always at an elevated threat level, the most important consumer — the American public — had little sense of what might be “normal.” The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale exists to determine the severity of nuclear incidents or accidents; it is so complex that the level is often determined after an incident and it is relatively unknown outside policy circles.
The public does not need to grasp all the details of the science behind changes to the scale. It just needs a way to know, and process, what is normal, heightened, and extreme danger. This is particularly true given that biological threats are invisible, causing a type of fear distinct from those we can feel or see.
Something as simple as levels 1 to 5 might do the trick. It doesn’t need to be rocket science, but perhaps a vernacular that could explain to the American public the context of the potential harms out there and whether we should yawn or run for the doorway.
It’s a buzz-kill, yes, but it’s absolutely necessary to find a link between the wonders being discussed at the international bio-tech conference today and those of us who don’t speak the language.
Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem