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May 8, 2019

Eric Hegg: Testifying on behalf of science

May 8, 2019

Eric Hegg is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the College of Natural Science. Recently, Hegg was asked to testify before U.S. Congress.

I was attending a conference in Denver when I received a request asking if I would consider the possibility of testifying before the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The topic of the hearing was genetic engineering (i.e., altering genes to give organisms new and desirable properties), and the Subcommittee wanted some feedback on draft legislation.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. I didn’t have a lot of experience explaining my research to non-scientists, and the few opportunities when I had done so ended with mixed success.

A previous interview I had with a public radio outlet, explaining my work using stable (i.e. non-radioactive) isotopes to study metabolism went reasonably well, but there were long pauses between the interviewer’s questions and my answers. Thankfully, I had been assured beforehand that they could edit out the pauses, and to take my time carefully considering each answer. I took full advantage of that extra time and, after the skillful editing, the interview actually sounded reasonably coherent and natural.

My second opportunity came when I was attending a wood bioprocessing conference in the Upper Peninsula. The local news channel arrived, and the organizer asked if I would be willing to participate in a brief interview. I hesitantly said yes, checked to make sure that my hair wasn’t sticking up and walked in front of the camera. At some point during the interview I used the word "lignin" (one of the key structural components of plant cell walls). The interviewer said, “I’m sure some of our guests watching at home don’t know what lignin is, can you explain it?”

I had never thought about how to explain "lignin" to a non-scientist and, without missing a beat, I said something to the effect of, “Lignin is a polyaromatic compound…” When I got back to my seat and recounted my story, my colleagues said, “You told them what?” Amazingly, they still used my interview on TV, although they did edit out my explanation of lignin.

Testifying before Congress in Washington, D.C., however, was very different. There wouldn’t be any opportunities for skillful editing. This was live, and I had no idea what sort of questions they might ask me. I wouldn’t have much time to think, and anything I did or said would be captured on camera for all to see and hear.

At the same time, it was a perfect opportunity to make myself heard regarding the United States' competitive advantage by increasing support for research, education and commercialization in synthetic biology. This area of research is likely to grow in global economic importance, and increased inter- and intra-agency coordination can help ensure U.S. leadership.

Needless to say, I agreed to testify, and I am very glad that I did. I spoke directly to some of the members of Congress who are drafting legislation that affects my research. If we as scientists don’t take advantage of these opportunities to get involved and explain the importance of our research, others, who are perhaps less informed, will do it for us.

Preparing the written testimony (which was separate from the oral testimony) was certainly stressful, but I have some great colleagues here at MSU who gave me advice, and the MSU Federal Relations team was also exceedingly helpful.

There were definitely a few questions that I didn’t anticipate and, in retrospect, I would have answered a couple of them slightly differently. Overall, however, it was a very positive experience. I became engaged and let my voice be heard. Instead of not being involved and only complaining about the final results, I became engaged in the process. I hope I had a positive influence, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to be heard.