A Textual Analysis of Stakeholder Perceptions of Genomic Editing Technology

Matthew Robbins, Christopher Calabrese, Jade Ding Featherstone, George A. Barnett

Contact: mjrobbins@ucdavis.edu

Genome editing involves the addition, removal, or alteration of genetic material at particular locations in an organism’s genome and is an emerging socio-scientific issue. CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR) is a genome editing technology promoted widely by scientists for its promise in food, agriculture and medicine. However, many consumers have reacted negatively to previous agricultural applications derived from biotechnology, suggesting that lack of public acceptance may be a barrier to the commercialization of CRISPR crops. This study utilizes semantic network analysis and natural language processing to examine and compare perceptions that various key publics have of CRISPR. We conducted electronic surveys with four key CRISPR stakeholder groups: biology faculty at major U.S. land grant universities, staff at federal- and state-level agricultural policy-making institutions, farmers, and the general public. Respondents wrote short essays outlining their thoughts and perceptions regarding CRISPR. From this data, we created semantic networks (using Context and R) based on word co-occurrence within windowed intervals in the essays for each of the four stakeholder groups. We then used cluster analysis, community detection and topic modeling on these data to compare the latent semantic structure and common themes in the responses between the groups. Preliminary results show convergence across methods and reveal key distinctions in the semantic structure and concepts emphasized across the groups. For example, scientists utilize a high level of technical scientific terminology emphasize the precision and potential utility of the technology. Policy workers also exhibited a relatively high level of technical sophistication while emphasizing the potential societal benefits. Also, farmers used a relatively low level of scientific terminology while emphasizing the potential agricultural benefits. The general public exhibited a low level of understanding of the issue, framing their responses in ethical terms and generally expressing both optimism and uncertainty. Findings will provide researchers with an image of the mental representations of CRISPR across stakeholder groups. This will aid in the development of message strategies to bridge the gap between the scientific community and various key publics.



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