- Open Access
Engaging scientists: An online survey exploring the experience of innovative biotechnological approaches to controlling vector-borne diseases
© Boëte et al. 2015
Received: 1 June 2015
Accepted: 9 July 2015
Published: 10 August 2015
Pioneering technologies (e.g., nanotechnology, synthetic biology or climate engineering) are often associated with potential new risks and uncertainties that can become sources of controversy. The communication of information during their development and open exchanges between stakeholders is generally considered a key issue in their acceptance. While the attitudes of the public to novel technologies have been widely considered there has been relatively little investigation of the perceptions and awareness of scientists working on human or animal diseases transmitted by arthropods.
Consequently, we conducted a global survey on 1889 scientists working on aspects of vector-borne diseases, exploring, under the light of a variety of demographic and professional factors, their knowledge and awareness of an emerging biotechnology that has the potential to revolutionize the control of pest insect populations.
Despite extensive media coverage of key developments (including releases of manipulated mosquitoes into human communities) this has in only one instance resulted in scientist awareness exceeding 50 % on a national or regional scale. We document that awareness of pioneering releases significantly relied on private communication sources that were not equally accessible to scientists from countries with endemic vector-borne diseases (dengue and malaria). In addition, we provide quantitative analysis of the perceptions and knowledge of specific biotechnological approaches to controlling vector-borne disease, which are likely to impact the way in which scientists around the world engage in the debate about their value.
Our results indicate that there is scope to strengthen already effective methods of communication, in addition to a strong demand by scientists (expressed by 79.9 % of respondents) to develop new, creative modes of public engagement.
Over the last 100 years there have been numerous dramatic successes in the control of devastating human diseases vectored by insects, this includes the stable elimination of malaria from almost 100 countries  and the global control of urban yellow fever epidemics . These successes have been brought about by a variety of technologies that at their inception were considered to be both experimental and pioneering. However, once the relative effectiveness of a vector-control technique becomes widely established their state-of-the-art status is often forgotten and in time becomes an obscure historical footnote . Currently, in the context of inadequate regional control of some vectored diseases (e.g. malaria in sub-Saharan Africa) and newly emerging diseases (e.g. dengue), there has been an increasing interest in an innovative class of insect control approaches which use modern biotechnological techniques as a means to limit transmission [4, 5]. This has already resulted in large-scale open field trials of two biotechnological techniques in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cayman Islands (U.K.) and Brazil with a species of mosquito that is responsible for transmitting dengue to humans around the globe (Aedes aegypti, [6–10]). The first of these experimental approaches seeks to establish maternally inherited endosymbiotic bacteria at high frequency in target Aedes aegypti populations as a means to reduce their capacity to vector a range of diseases. This anti-pathogen tech nique was field trialed for the very first time in the Australian city of Cairns in 2011 and was largely developed by researchers at Australian universities [8, 9]. The second biotechnological technique uses a recombinant genetic engineering approach to render released males partially sterile as a means to reduce the size of target Aedes aegypti populations. This technique was largely developed by a commercial company (Oxitec Ltd. based in the United Kingdom) and was first field trialed in 2009 in the Caribbean Cayman Islands . This was only the second time a transgenic insect had ever been intentionally released and was the first release of a transgenic mosquito (the earlier series of trials had released a transgenic moth pest of cotton in the USA, [11, 12]). Both the transgenic and the Wolbachia approaches require the release of large numbers of manipulated mosquitoes into human communities. These techniques, and other related biotechnological approaches have been argued as having the potential to positively revolutionize the control of diseases vectored by insects to humans, plants and animals [4, 5, 13–15]. In common with many other innovative technologies, if any of these diseases control techniques prove to be attractive alternatives to currently available methods this will inevitably result in the disruption of established approaches. Furthermore, the novelty of aspects of these experimental techniques has the potential to sustain and amplify controversy both in the general public and also among scientists [4, 16–21]. Consequently, engagement with stakeholders was repeatedly highlighted as of critical importance during the very early consideration of experimental trials of all these biotechnological approaches [4, 14, 16, 17, 22–29]. While there continues to be an understandable focus on the perceptions of the general public [16, 20, 22, 25, 30–32] there has been less work on how scientists in diverse disciplines and backgrounds perceive these novel biotechnological techniques (though see [17, 33–38]).
Herein, we examine the opinions and awareness of scientists on the topic of innovative biotechnological techniques by conducting an invited written survey of 1889 individuals expert in various aspects of diseases vectored to humans by arthropods. We show that despite extensive media attention on global and regional scales (e.g. [18, 21, 39–41]); awareness of key developments is consistently low. This is despite the fact that large numbers of the very scientists most likely to be impacted by developments were included in the survey (e.g. 389 of the sampled scientists spent more than 50 % of their time working in disease-endemic countries and report a substantial focus on applied research). However, in only one instance are we able to establish that awareness of pioneering developments exceeded 50 % on a national or regional scale.
The survey respondents include a sizeable sample from non-disease-endemic countries (where all these biotechnology techniques were initially developed) and the large communities of researchers in disease-endemic countries (where these approaches may eventually be applied). Crucially, our sample includes a large number (75 %) of disinterested scientists not directly involved in the development of these biotechnological approaches, but still expert in some aspect of vector-borne diseases. By contrasting these and other partitions of respondents’ backgrounds it was possible to identify factors that appear to strongly influence their views towards these pioneering techniques. We find that factors including their scientific expertise, citizenship, and their degree of professional involvement in biotechnology all have profound impacts on: (1) how and when they are first informed about pioneering and experimental techniques, (2) their attitude towards public engagement, and (3) their perceptions of innovative technological approaches. Given the limited capacity to communicate on global or continental scales demonstrated below, even with experts in fields potentially directly impacted by this technology, we argue that regional or nationally targeted engagement strategies represent the most promising approach to increasing the dissemination of information. Furthermore, increasing the awareness of key developments in the well established large pool of global scientists already expert in the general topic of vectored diseases could be an important step in enhancing local scientists’ role as contacts for decision makers and the public concerning rapidly developing innovative technologies.
The e-mail addresses of corresponding authors were harvested from the web-of-science (Thomson Reuters) database using a series of keyword searches (Additional file 1) to identify active researchers publishing in the period 2005–2012 likely to be expert in at least one aspect of human or animal vectored disease. This list of e-mails was further parsed to yield 14747 unique addresses (Additional file 1). An invitation to participate in the survey was sent 4th October 2012 with the subject heading: Survey Invitation 'Transgenics and Vector-borne Diseases' (Additional file 2). Further, 5 follow-up reminders were sent until the 11th December 2012 (Additional file 2). The survey was conducted using the QuestionPro web-based platform (QuestionPro.com). The full text of the survey is provided in the Additional file 3. Throughout the text relevant questions are identified from the Additional file 3 by their respective number prefixed by the letter ‘Q’. Data exploration and statistical analysis was performed using JMP (SAS Institute) and Filemaker Pro (Filemaker Inc.). In total there were 1889 completed surveys from respondents indicating that their work was ‘somehow related to human or animal diseases that are transmitted by arthropods’ (Q1). Only 27 substantially incomplete surveys were discarded from analysis. The questionnaire was viewed 4046 times and started by 2771 responders. Most of the scientists working on vector-borne disease reported (Q2, Additional file 3) activities on: malaria 862 (45.6 %), dengue 778 (41.7 %), tick-borne diseases 377 (20 %), chikungunya 341(18.1 %), filaria 205 (10.9 %), Japanese encephalitis 191 (10.1 %), Chagas disease 317 (9 %), entomopathogenic fungi 70 (3.7 %), and microsporidia 27 (1.4 %). Among them 1245 (65.9 %) reported working on malaria or dengue, while 405 (21.4 %) declared activities on both diseases. To assess the extent to which the research interests of respondents reflected the output of the whole field of vector research during the relevant time period, title keyword searches were performed using the web-of-science database (Additional file 4). The correlation between this crude proxy for the research output of the whole field and that reported by the survey respondents was high, 0.91 for 2012 and 0.87 for the combined period 2005–2012, indicating a highly representative sampling from this perspective. Broadly speaking, all the diverse topics were representatively sampled with only malaria being somewhat underrepresented (though given that a prior smaller survey  specifically examined malaria researchers perceptions of transgenic mosquitoes the more extensive scope of the current data set complements the earlier study). Among the respondents, 720 (38.1 %) were citizens of a country endemic (Q3, Additional file 3) for either malaria or dengue as defined by the WHO and CDC in (2013, healthmap.org). Most respondents were resident in countries they were citizens of, with only 287 (15.2 %) being resident aliens (Q4, Additional file 3). Finally, a majority 1411 (75 %) of the respondent’s research was unrelated to transgenesis (including paratransgenesis, Q12, Additional file 3), with only 478 (25 %) reporting any involvement in transgenic research. The substantial sample size of both these groups permitted perceptual differences and similarities between these groups to be robustly explored. Respondents selecting ‘No opinion’ or failing to select any of the given options are excluded from the analysis of the relevant question.
Results and discussion
The large and diverse dataset of 1889 respondents to the 30 questions (see Additional file 3 for details) was explored, focusing on 3 major questions relevant to the implementation of biotechnological vector control: (1) How aware are scientists of novel scientific techniques and how do they obtain information about pioneering developments? (2) What are scientists’ attitudes towards public communication and how might that impact the role they play in engaging the communities in which they live? (3) Should experts with similar professional specialization be viewed as homogenous from the perspective of how they view science and technology? These questions in the general area of public and scientific engagement have been repeatedly highlighted as liable to be important to the successful development of biotechnological approaches to controlling vectored diseases approaches [4, 14, 16, 17, 22–29]. However, it is also likely to be highly relevant to a range of other innovative technologies e.g., nanotechnology , synthetic biology [43, 44] or climate engineering . The particular importance of the above questions to the control of vector-borne diseases partly stems from the fact that biotechnological strategies (particularly those utilizing recombinant DNA methods) in public health are associated with new perceived risks and uncertainties, possibly at a higher level than other currently employed disease control techniques (vaccines, bed-nets, prophylactic-drugs or indoor insecticide spraying). This is probably also because most of these novel biotechnologies require the long-term maintenance of large numbers of manipulated insects dispersing by flight throughout human communities (in some instances transgenics). Undoubtedly, the recurrent controversy about the use of genetically modified crops in agriculture is also a source of defiance towards extending genetic engineering to blood-feeding insects living in human communities.
Obviously complex ethical, democratic and presentational challenges arise, many of which have been considered in the context of public perceptions and rights ([4, 14, 16, 17, 22–29, 46] though see [47, 48]). However, this study focuses on the potentially more tractable question of how scientists communicate with other scientists about pioneering techniques and their perceptions of them. The importance of genuinely bi-directional exchange between the public and scientists is widely recognized as crucial for the democratic legitimacy of scientific research. Sociological research has also demonstrated the role this dialogue plays in the acceptance or rejection of scientifically developed solutions and for public trust in science [49–51]. While this two-way engagement presumes a clear-cut distinction between expert ‘scientists’ and the less well informed ‘public’ , the boundaries between these categories appear from the survey results to be more inexact than might be anticipated.
How aware are scientists of novel techniques and how do they obtain information about pioneering developments?
Interestingly, for the minority of scientists that were aware of either release before they commenced (<35 %), it is clear that being privately informed is an important route of information among scientists from non-endemic countries (Fig. 4). However, these networks of private communication do not appear to extend to the same extent to scientists from disease-endemic countries (Fig. 4). Finally, we observe that the widespread lack of awareness of key developments illustrated in Fig. 4, also extended to contemporaneous events in 2012. Respondents were asked to state if they were aware of any current open releases of transgenic mosquitoes (Q26). Throughout the period of the survey in 2012 releases were occurring in the Brazilian city of Juazeiro (Bahia). However, only 29.1 % (N = 550) correctly responded ‘yes’ to this question, though among researchers involved in transgenic research (Q13) this was somewhat higher at 43.3 % (N = 207). Interestingly, Brazilian scientists were among the most informed with 55.9 % (N = 87 of 152, Q26) reporting being aware of the releases; however, only 42.5 % (N = 37of 87, Q27) were right about the releases happening in their own country. Though the Brazilian release (starting in 2011) cannot be considered pioneering in the same way as the Cayman 2009 or Australia 2011 releases, the fact that awareness is highest in the country where the trial is conducted is consistent with the high national awareness of the 2011 Wolbachia release in Australia (Fig. 2). Unfortunately, the survey did not include any respondents resident in the Cayman Islands, so it was impossible to determine if high local awareness was also the case for the 2009 Cayman island release. Four hundred and seven respondents incorrectly identified at least one country other than Brazil as a release location in 2012 (Q27), these included Malaysia (N = 120), Cayman Islands (N = 34), Australia (N = 96), USA (N = 51), Thailand (N = 27), Mexico (N = 27), and various African countries (N = 45). Why some of these locations were repeatedly identified can in some instances be reasonably be speculated upon. For example, Malaysia and the Cayman Islands were the sites of earlier releases (2009–2011) of transgenic mosquitoes that had ceased prior to the 2012 survey. The USA reports are likely to be related to a pending application to release transgenic mosquitoes in the Florida Keys . Similarly, the incorrect identification of Mexico as an open release site is likely related to contained outdoor caged experiments in the Mexican state of Chiapas . Respondents identifying Australia as a release site (N = 96) probably mistook the Wolbachia releases in 2011 for a transgenic technique . Concerning the 45 respondents identifying African countries as release locations, it is less clear what might be the basis, as to our knowledge no such releases of manipulated mosquitos had been officially proposed (though see ). It is possible that this incorrect identification might be related to an existing project with conventional sterile insect technique releases of mosquitoes in Sudan . Interestingly, of the 45 respondents indicating an African release of transgenic mosquitos in 2012 only 8 were citizens of African countries, indicating that this belief is not likely to be based on local information. Collectively, the widespread misunderstandings about what releases were genuinely occurring in 2012 (Q26 & Q27) and the low degree of awareness of two earlier pioneering releases (Fig. 1, 2, Q20 & Q22) emphasize the fact that even among the scientists basic knowledge can often be quite incomplete and imprecise.
What are scientists’ attitudes towards public communication and how might that impact the role they play in engaging the communities in which they live?
Should experts with similar professional specialization be viewed as homogenous from the perspective of how they view science and technology?
The overall aim of this survey was to elucidate scientists’ knowledge of and opinions on a currently emerging technology at an early stage in its public and scientific evaluation. This was done for the mass release of biotechnologically manipulated mosquitoes for the control of human diseases (e.g., dengue). Only 25 % of the scientists in the survey indicated any direct involvement in developing the technology, with the remaining 75 % being in related but distinct disciplines (many of which are likely to be impacted should any novel methods prove to be effective). Probably the most publically visible phase of technology development commenced for the two most advanced techniques in 2009 and 2011 with large-scale experimental releases in human communities. Overall the most striking result of the survey is the small percentage of scientists who were aware of either release before it started, consistently less than 35 % throughout the world (Fig. 1 and 2). This is despite a strong consensus among respondents 86 % (N = 1660) that engagement should commence ‘Before any permit application for field testing is made’.
If experts working in the scientific field of vector control were not reached by any means of communication prior to high-profile pioneering trials commencing we can reasonably ask who then was reached at all? As the intense public controversy around genetically modified food shows, such a lack of engagement and inadequate dissemination of accurate information can backfire at the point of widespread implementation of new technologies [49, 63]. Equally, this lack of information calls into question the ethics and the democratic legitimacy of such research: if even scientific colleagues are not informed, how then do potentially disagreeing parties have a chance to voice their concerns? Furthermore, the widespread misunderstandings about what releases were genuinely occurring contemporaneously at the time of the survey (Q26 & Q27) and the low degree of awareness of two earlier pioneering releases (Figs. 1, 2 and 3, Q20 & Q22) emphasize the fact that even among experts basic knowledge is often incomplete and imprecise. This clearly highlights significant gaps in the communication processes occurring within the scientific community. Of the scientists from disease non-endemic countries that were informed about releases prior to them occurring 29 %-41 % obtain information via private sources (Fig. 2). However, these private sources were not equally available to scientists in disease-endemic countries where only 4 %-6 % accessed them (Fig. 4). This result points towards continuing inequalities in information sharing between scientists from the so-called developing and developed countries. Generally, the survey points to a need to improve communication between peers (Figs. 1 and 2), but more specifically to extend existing communication sources (including informal ones) to more fully include experts in disease-endemic countries where this technology is most likely to be used.
The survey showed that only scientists in the country where a release took place were widely aware of developments (Australia, Figs. 1 and 2 and Brazil Q27). This underlines the effectiveness of communication at local and national levels in disseminating accurate information in a timely manner. With respect to designing and implementing future inclusive communication strategies the success of the Australian ‘Eliminate Dengue’ project to achieve 70 % awareness prior to an up coming development (Fig. 2) is a notable achievement. Otherwise, the survey results indicate the aim of raising awareness even in groups of interested scientists is an extremely challenging one using conventional communication approaches. The survey results do however indicate that in attempting to increase awareness among experts it may be productive to strengthen traditional scientific communication methods (scientific articles and meetings) rather than relying on general media exposure (Fig. 4). This having been said, there were two meetings specifically focused on the topic of transgenic mosquitoes in the 9 months preceding the 2009 Cayman releases [28, 64], however this does not appear to have translated into a high degree of awareness of the upcoming pioneering development (Fig. 4). Expanding private information networks – through scientific collaboration and exchanges for instance - to include scientists from endemic countries would also appear to be a valuable component in communicating with the countries where these techniques are most likely to be experimentally tested or applied.
The survey also questioned scientists about their habits and opinions on communicating with the general public. The survey reveals that only a very small proportion of scientists (5 %) communicate more than once a month with non-specialist audiences (Q17), while more than 80 % have very limited interactions (Additional file 6). This finding is consistent with data reported for biomedical researchers were <75 % reported being in contact with journalists between 0–5 times a year . While we did not directly explore the reasons for such a low level of engagement despite a high value being placed upon it (by 53.8 % of respondents), it is likely to require a multifaceted explanation. One probable factor is of course lack of time for a task some scientists might consider secondary to their research and professional duties. Equally, it could reflect a limitation in the access that many scientists have to effective means of communication--for example media-outlets may be perceived to be interested in only hearing from a small group of high-profile specialists . Such explanations would need to be specifically investigated, but a better understanding could be valuable in helping lower the barriers between the majority of scientists enthusiastic about communication and the interested public. In the context of earlier studies detailing a correlation between the number of science communication activities and the perceived importance of public engagement [66, 67], it is interesting to note that there is a positive correlation in the current survey (Additional file 7) between the frequency at which scientists report communicating with the public (Q17) and a preference for earlier engagement of the public in scientific projects (Q18).
However, regardless of this correlation, a remarkable 77.9 % of the surveyed scientists indicated the need for more creative methods to educate and involve the public in science (Q19, Fig. 5). This shows that most scientists consider the existing opportunities to communicate with non-scientific audiences as inadequate. The pervasive desire for new and creative communication methods by vector scientists is thus a major result of this survey. It suggests a need for more tailor-made and imaginative approaches to science communication , potentially motivating collaborations between scientists, professional communicators, artists and other professions to better use existing tools and to develop new ones ([68, 69] including online ). In the context of unconventional communication techniques, unexpectedly, our survey has proven to be the largest single tool in globally disseminating information about key developments in this field (see Fig. 1). While, the information conveyed may be of a superficial nature it is noteworthy that 80 % of respondents to a related survey of Nigeria scientists stated that participation would inspire them to seek additional information about transgenic mosquitoes .
In a broader sense the survey can be viewed as reflecting that scientists are in many situations themselves a 'public' of science. Just as laypersons’ competences and awareness of technological issues differ, it is often not reasonable to assume that ‘a scientist’ understands all relevant aspects- even in his or her own subfield of science . In this sense a simple binary division between science and lay knowledge appears fraught. Instead we see a clear need to place scientists among their society and not outside of it . More symmetrical communication and experimenting with creative ways of engaging may prove productive in bringing the sciences and their various publics into effective dialogue with each other.
Limitations of survey
Surveying a diverse set of professionals dealing with vector-borne diseases and public health necessitates making choices in sampling. The method of selecting for corresponding authors of papers dealing with vector control through the Web of Science has already been used successfully in a previous survey . Alternative ways of sampling could have been to restrict participation to authors that have published a minimal number of papers , or only consider authors of highly cited papers [72, 73]. The underlying assumption would be that a wider inclusion might have biased the survey by including authors whose work on vector control is only a peripheral part of their activity. However, as we chose to include only corresponding authors this bias should be limited. In addition, our wider sampling method has the advantage to get young scientists involved in the survey instead of favoring a narrow selection of senior scientists. This also avoids the risk of an overrepresentation of domains where publication production is higher. Additionally, we were explicitly keen to involve the wider scientific community concerned with vector control, rather than a narrow selection, which tends to be biased towards a one author, one voice system. Wider sampling, we suggest, offers us the possibility to access the opinions and experiences of a “community of practice” , namely the scientists who share a profession and a common concern in their engagement in vector control. We believe this is important as it does not restrict us to include only scientists working in transgenic vector control means, but allow us to include a representative sample of scientists working on other technologies and approaches of vector control (see also Additional file 4).
Information about science is only one factor in creating conditions for a democratic engagement with science and scientific results. Accepting and trusting results and biomedical interventions rather requires broad reflect on the normative commitments of science, as well as its economic and institutional distributions and politics [49, 50, 70, 75, 76]. However, information about science and public trials of scientific interventions is nevertheless to be seen as one of the prerequisites for such broader deliberations to take place. In this sense, the present study focuses on one very limited aspect of the public understanding and engagement with science, but nevertheless a crucial one we suggest.
Questioning the general public about their knowledge, perception and fears concerning novelties and innovations is a well established approach in social science studies [49, 50, 70, 75]. While communication approaches that aim at rectifying perceived deficiencies or gaps in knowledge have repeatedly been shown to be largely ineffective for the general public, as far as we are aware it remains to be determined how useful they might be for experts . Here we took a converse approach by examining the perception and awareness of scientists to a specific emerging technology.
This revealed a lack of communication among a substantial proportion of the scientific community and that some of the information that is circulating can be inaccurate. This finding was common to the 74.7 % of scientists in the study who were not directly involved in the development of the technology, but also to the 26.3 % that reported being actively involved. Our work also suggests that scientists should be seen as publics in the societies they live in and that a large majority of them would value more extensive public engagement, with 79.9 % in favor of finding more creative methods to do this. Making extensive connections between specialists involved in technology development and expert scientists in related fields is clearly challenging. Initiatives such as biohacker spaces  might be one of the many ways to open a space of mutual engagement, including with the general public.
In summary our results strongly support the value of prioritizing mutual knowledge building between specialists scientists involved in technology development and scientists in related fields as a means to promote a genuinely two-way dialogue. Furthermore, because technology specialists constitute only a very small proportion of the scientific community, engaging with numerically much larger pools of experts that are already locally established has numerous practical advantages (this is in addition to affording an increased legitimacy to decision making processes by facilitating prominent roles for local scientists). Clearly, an inclusive dialogue between scientists can only facilitate its expansion to include the general public. While our study focused on applications and early developments in a specific biotechnology, most of our conclusions are likely to have wide applicability to numerous diverse fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology or climate engineering.
The authors are grateful to all responders who have taken time to fill in the survey. We would like to thank F. Gould, M. Cobb, Binder and W.N. Reynolds for permission to reproduce questions Q24 and Q25 from their survey. We are grateful to Steven Katz for his very helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.
This study has been funded by the Action Interdisciplinaire de Recherche (AIR) from the Institut des Sciences de la Communication (ISCC), CNRS.
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