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Salmon Genes, Discuss

Should science fiddle with salmon genetics? We put 26 people in a room to test the question -- and 'deliberative democracy.'

David Secko and Emma Cohen 23 Mar

Emma Cohen is a research assistant at UBC's W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics. David Secko is an assistant professor at Concordia's department of journalism. More information on the event can be found at:

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Stylish genes you got there.

Fish is not something that usually makes us tense, but we didn't know what to expect.

We had invited 26 regular B.C. folk to Vancouver to discuss their hopes and concerns for sequencing the salmon genome. That is, obtaining all the genes in a salmon.

Fine topic for scientists, maybe policy makers, and perhaps salmon farmers. But for retired factory workers, students, nurses and everyday you and me, what would we talk about when we heard Canada, Norway and Chile are planning to decipher the genetic code of the Atlantic salmon?

If you're perplexed by the topic choice, we prayed they wouldn't be. But we were edgy since we hadn't been at many parties where salmon genetics led the conversation. Now we take hope from a comment of one invited guest on what such a gathering of citizens can yield: "Scientists can teach us and maybe we can teach the scientists."

A different spin on democracy

We had been thinking about the topic of salmon genes for several years as part of a research project at UBC's W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics (led by Michael Burgess). We saw the field of genetics proceeding rapidly forward. We vigorously discussed the far-reaching ethical, social and cultural impacts of some basic science and its applications. We felt some voices were not always heard, worse yet, not even asked.

Democracy doesn't always add up to all the voices in the country. While everyone can speak up, small voices are often muted by bigger ones.

Technical and expertise-laden fields like science and technology don't always allow regular people to sit at the decision table. Those people who might not know what a gene is or what it means to have a salmon genome, but nevertheless know what it means to live in this country and see it change. Their absence is a shame.

So when we got wind of a change in democratic theory, we perked up. Decades old and well-debated in some circles, deliberative democracy theorized that perhaps we should supplement electoral representation -- for example majority rule where voters elect decision-makers -- with processes that allow people to learn deeply about a topic, debate it with others, then come to a collective decision (or a recognition of a persistent disagreement) on advice for what government policies might look like.

Some similar recent experiments

Examples of such deliberative processes in Canada include the B.C. Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform that ended in December 2004 and the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform that ended in May 2007. The idea is to foster an environment that allows strong public input and citizen reflection on the chosen topic.

In 2007, our project also held a deliberative event on biobanking -- collections of biological materials and information. We worked to enable deliberation by recruiting participants with diverse life experiences (21 people from across B.C. in this case), efficiently informing participants without allowing powerful interests to capture their point of view, by motivating participants to reflect on the issue, and by avoiding premature consensus.

Let's be clear: the idea is not to abandon our system of voters electing decision-makers. Instead, it is to design robust processes that allow strong public input into pressing social questions. And not every problem is one that should be deliberated on, in this way.

Passion, hopes, concern

With this thinking, we turned to deciphering the genetic code of salmon. This is a research endeavour that may lead to applications that will help us to conserve a species under stress. It may also enable directed-breeding or genetic modification of salmon. So what do we as citizens hope this information will be used for? And what are we concerned about?

On two weekends in November 2008, these questions were put to 26 randomly recruited people from across B.C. and we hoped for more than just a forced discussion.

From this group of total strangers, we heard voices. We heard strong voices. We heard people empowered and speaking of democracy again.

Many people in B.C. have strong views about salmon, so holding a discussion about salmon genes was stimulating and difficult. One deliberant described the deep connection he feels toward salmon: "If the salmon go, I'm finished too. That is how much a part of me it is. Both physically and spiritually." (As a research project, we promised to keep the names of the participants that deliberated confidential.)

Such connections put everyone on alert. We were together to talk about a fish some participants took very seriously. "[T]he fish brings us together again," added another participant.

Salmon genes and me

Two weekends made it clear that some people were more in favour of sequencing a salmon genome than others and some were altogether opposed. Some even questioned what we were getting: "I kind of doubt that knowing all the genes really tells you anything... I mean knowing all of my genes doesn't tell you who I am. It may tell you something about me, but it doesn't tell you everything about who I am. I think probably the same thing is true for salmon."

Others saw solutions to a damaged B.C. environment. "Well, my hope is... the study of the genome can tell us if the salmon can overcome the changes [in the environment] without us having to modify anything first," said a male participant whose passion is salmon sports fishing. But concerns were still there, namely that if someone does decide to alter the salmon genome, that these changes don't "have a devastating effect on the salmon or the environment."

An overarching message was that caution is needed when applying the knowledge from salmon genes to avoid unforeseen dangers. "[G]enomics will be seen as a quick fix for human-made problems and society won't put the effort or resources into other solutions," reflected one participant.

Looking wider

Some might feel discussions with the public on prospective, abstract research applications cannot yield useful information. But these 26 citizens engaged in boisterous and critical reflection on what they want their future with salmon to be like, as well as what government policies that help build this future should value.

Looking wider, biotechnology policy in Canada affects our health, wealth and environment, and is often dominated by powerful interests. This experiment on salmon genes is an example of how to enable informed public deliberation on the direction of these policies. The next step is to bridge research and policy. "I was thinking one of my big hopes is that somebody, policy makers or somebody in government, actually listens to what's coming out of this," concluded a participant.

Deliberative democracy is not a cure all. It is an expensive and time-consuming process. As an approach to improving political representation and civic deliberation it also requires careful evaluation to avoid the mere appearance of enhanced legitimacy. The party over, our fish-based tension was wonderfully cooked. Twenty-six chefs in the kitchen make for a complex dish.

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