Science Communication and Science Policy: Estonian Media Discourse on the Genetic Database Project

By Hallap, Tiiu | Trames, March-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Science Communication and Science Policy: Estonian Media Discourse on the Genetic Database Project


Hallap, Tiiu, Trames


1. Introduction

The Estonian Human Genome Project was launched in 1999, with the objective of establishing a nation-wide database of health and genetic data. It will contain phenotype and genotype data on the entire adult population of Estonia (around 1 million people). The database is expected to contribute to the improvement of the methods of diagnosis and treatment in medicine, the chief purpose being the exploration of the genetic causes of common diseases. At the immediately practical level, it is hoped that the database will enable to assess the specific disease risks of individual persons. The major clients of the database, however, would not be individuals, but research institutions and companies in the fields of bioinformatics, biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals. By September 2003 samples had been collected from about 4,000 gene donors, and this number may rise to 10,000 by the end of 2003. Analogous or somewhat different projects, with varying designs and property arrangements, are under way in several other countries, including Iceland, Britain, Sweden, Canada and Tonga. Still other countries (e.g. Germany) are considering the possibility of creating population databases.

From the very beginning, Estonian and foreign media have devoted quite a lot of attention to the databank project. In the last 3 years, over 230 articles and opinions on this topic have been published in the Estonian media. There have been some periods of time where the interest of media has been especially high, with articles, interviews and opinions on the gene bank project appearing almost every day. In 2003, however, the interest of the domestic press seems to have significantly waned.

As to the exact extent of domestic and foreign media interest in the Estonian database project, there are somewhat conflicting assessments. In July 2003, the Head of Information of the Estonian Genome Project was of the opinion (Koik 2003) that "since 1999, Estonian, as well as foreign media have expressed considerable interest in the Estonian Genome Project.... Over the last three years, foreign media have published more than fifty major articles on the Estonian Genome Project.... Estonians have been treated to lively debate." However, Palsson and Haroardottir (2002:273) say that

   A detailed comparison of the biogenetics projects of Britain,
   Estonia, Iceland and Sweden, the ways in which they have been
   discussed domestically and internationally.... [reveals] a striking
   contrast. While the Icelandic Biogenetic Project has been the
   center of controversy and widespread discussion, in Britain,
   Estonia, and Sweden there has been virtually no public dialogue on
   similar projects. Moreover, the international press and the
   transnational scientific and bioethical communities have been
   heavily focused on the Icelandic Biogenetic Project, whereas the
   British, Estonian, and Swedish efforts have received scant
   attention. (1)

In quantitative terms, over 200 media items of the domestic press may seem a lot, especially for a small country like Estonia. However, there is reason to have a look at this media material from the viewpoint of its actual informative value. This is what the present paper attempts to do.

2. Methodological note

There exist a wide variety of techniques and approaches for studying media discourse. One important class of these methods is referred to as "discourse analysis". Such analysis may be both qualitative and quantitative, and is actually not a separate discipline, but rather an interdisciplinary field which embraces very different approaches. These range from analyses aiming at impartial, objective description to approaches which take an active, politicised attitude. An interesting example of how these techniques can be applied specifically to media discourse on science is Erkki Kauhanen's survey of science and pseudoscience discourse in major Finnish newspapers (Kauhanen 1997). …

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Science Communication and Science Policy: Estonian Media Discourse on the Genetic Database Project
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