2001 Public Health Symposium

Fourth Annual Public Health Symposium
and Second Isadore Bernstein Symposium
Environmental Health Policy, Science
and Public Perception:
A Challenge for Genetically Modified Organisms

The symposium was held on Friday, October 26, 2001 at the Michigan Theater.

The Symposium is an integral part of the School's curriculum and is open to students, faculty and invited guests only.

Science should play a strong role in the approach to environmental health policy. Unfortunately, the nature of science does not always fit the popular picture held by society at large, which likes to believe that science can resolve complex issues by identifying exactly what is true and what is not. So, when science fails to provide definitive answers, public mistrust is engendered. This is when policy makers and politicians lose confidence in the ability of science to be useful to them. Then single-agenda, science-based pressure groups and the media get into the act and, in the process, undermine further the trust of the public in science. Paradoxically, when scientists try to overcome these difficulties by being more open, the more the divisions between them become even more apparent, and the feeling of public mistrust becomes even greater. It is in this climate that the role of science in environmental health policies can become secondary to non-scientific factors. The example of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) is of considerable current significant concern and still the subject of great disagreement between experts. On the one hand, for example, GMOs are seen by some as providing major benefits to populations in the developing world through their potential to dramatically increase agricultural productivity, and hence food production. On the other hand, others envisage the possibility that GMOs might introduce (as-yet) unknown risks to the health of populations exposed to those organisms. The debate is conducted both in terms of basic science and the interface between science and public policy. Importantly, public perceptions are heavily influenced by the way in which the issues are communicated through the media. The Symposium sets out to bring together the contrasting viewpoints, and provide a forum for intelligent discussion of all facets of this complex issue.