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Frozen in time

The Jurassic Park franchise reveals as much about public attitudes towards science as any number of engagement exercises, says Adam Smith.

It is 22 years since Jurassic Park roared onto cinema screens. Steven Spielberg’s family adventure film, based on Michael Crichton’s darker, science-inspired morality tale, caught the imagination of adults and children alike—inspiring a generation of scientists to study ancient DNA, according to the science historian Elizabeth Jones, who is researching the impact of the film.

Colin Trevorrow’s reboot of the franchise, Jurassic World, made 14 years after the third film, serves to illustrate how some of our views on genetic engineering and society have evolved in recent decades.

Made in the 1990s, the first two films feature smart women standing up to sexist-men-slash-dinosaurs. In contrast, the female lead of Jurassic World is sexualised, stupid and won’t take off her high heels to run away from a dinosaur. Coffee chains and tech giants are name-checked so frequently that the film is more like a walk in the mall than a walk in the park.

But there are some things that have stayed the same, and they are all to do with science and innovation.

Jurassic World shares with its predecessors the belief that science can be a good force in society and that people can be awestruck by it. No doubt much of this stems from the palaeontologist Jack Horner, who has been an adviser to all four films.

Horner is that rare gem of a scientist who encourages the entertainers to spin their yarns, and doesn’t get hoity-toity when they bend or break the science in the name of emotions and thrills.

Better to take this approach, of working with story­tellers to get discussions about science going, than to obsess about having the details understood by a lay audience. Not everyone can work with Hollywood directors, but in every town and around every university are artists and writers who may want to collaborate with their friends from the lab.

The unifying idea behind all four films is that science is wonderful but can go wrong—and when it does, people get eaten. Crichton’s 1990 novel set the template here: there’s no point in resurrecting dinosaurs if you don’t let them run amok. But Crichton had subtler concerns, such as how these lab-grown creatures should be viewed—as profit-making private property or as wild beasts?

In interviews, Crichton, who died in 2008, quoted CP Snow’s Two Cultures lectures to argue that society is unable to debate science and values at the same time. Crichton and Spielberg voiced this debate through characters in the first two films, most memorably in Jeff Goldblum’s mathematician, or “chaotician actually”, Ian Malcolm. Malcolm and the visiting palaeontologists in Jurassic Park stood amazed at what science had achieved, but they also questioned whether it was right.

One fascination of Jurassic Park is that the concerns about genetic engineering come from a mix of visiting scientists, not from action heroes or everyday people in peril. In his novel, Crichton pushed ethical responsibility onto the scientists in a way that has become a prerequisite of respectable research practice, and he transferred this into his screenplay. Jurassic Park is classic science fiction: philosophy and politics dressed up in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume.

This continues in Jurassic World. But through the change in setting from a nature reserve to a theme park, prominence has been given to concerns about corporations that use genetic engineering to tweak nature and maximise profits, not just the science.

In fact, all of these concerns match those that have emerged from all public dialogues on genes and biotechnology—the first of which was held in 1994, a year after the first film. Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and run by the Science Museum, the project collected views on plant biotechnology.

Participants, who were selected to be a demographically stratified sample, recommended that genetically modified food be labelled as such. But these members of the public lacked teeth, and industry and politicians didn’t listen to them.

In the past 20 years there have been many attempts at similar public dialogues, using models developed by academics and policymakers. But they still haven’t cracked it. Up-to-date research by Melanie Smallman at University College London shows that participants in public dialogue are viewed as being outside the policy process. Governments listen to their appointed experts far more than they listen to the public.

So it seems that policymakers are unwilling or unable to take anything more from these dialogues than they could learn from Hollywood. Perhaps they should save their money and just watch a film, or switch from funding dialogues to financing film and media studies instead.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight