Selecting the experts was the most difficult part of this project. We were under time pressure because GM Foods were topical and we wanted to run it alongside the main IAS event so that students and teachers would find it easier to get involved.
We knew we would be criticised for the choice of experts no matter who it was but we felt as long as we were as transparent and balanced as possible the final selection would be welcomed.
There were 3 factors we needed to take into consideration:
- Range – what disciplines did we need experts in
- Balance – we wanted to make sure that we had experts who were Pro-GM and experts who were sceptical of GM technologies
- Expertise – the more expert someone is, the less available they sometimes are
The I’m a Scientist site is designed to allow 5 or 6 scientists to answer questions at any one time. That’s what we think it the right number for allowing a discussion to develop and for the visitors to be able to relate to. We have run events with more scientists overall but we have limited it to 5 scientists at any one time.
Our problem was that we had identified 7 areas of expertise that we wanted represented. In the end with the help of the Advisory Panel we changed this to:
- Plant biologist with expertise in GMO
- Science Policy
- International Development
- Food security
- Science Studies
As we looked further into specific people it became clear that some people could cover more than one area of expertise. In future projects it would be worth considering extending the duration in order to have more experts taking part in different weeks. We could then theme the weeks to particular sub-topics.
Our starting point was that the panel should have equal numbers of experts who were Pro-GM as those who were against GM. Was this the right decision? Prof. Steve Jones review of the BBC’s science coverage advised that balancing climate change scientists with an equal number of climate change was not a suitable way to provide balance. Does a balanced discussion require equal numbers?
In the end our 5 experts broke down as 3 generally pro-GM and 2 generally against GM. This was leapt upon by those opposed to GM as a sign that we were a Pro-GM site and that the panel was biased. We acknowledged this imbalance in numbers in the FAQ: “Are the experts biased?” but suggested that the panel are there to answer questions not make decisions and the exact balance was therefore less important as long as a wide range of views were expressed.
One of the joys about the main IAS event is that many of the scientists try to demonstrate how normal they are and that scientists don’t know everything. With the GM Food Zone it was a little different. The experts need to be expert. But do they need to the be the best, the most eminent in their field. In the end we were able to find experts who were very eminent and available. Would the event have been less useful if some experts were less qualified? We don’t know, but I doubt it. A balance between expertise and availability will always need to be negotiated.
As described in the narrative we invited nominations for the expert group and the Advisory Panel advised who should be selected. We actively sought out nominations, we checked with nominees if they were available and willing and for other suggestions if they weren’t. This was a very time-consuming operation made more so by the strict requirements on range, balance and expertise that we set ourselves. The time pressures we set ourselves did not help. If we have more time a more relaxed and efficient process could have been used.