by Roland Jackson, Executive Chair, Sciencewise-ERC
Protesters threaten to tear up a field trial being carried out at Rothamsted and the reaction of Sense About Science is to rush out a petition to ‘Defend Science’. It was rapidly rebranded as ‘Don’t Destroy Research’ http://bit.ly/KsjbIb, but the aggressive, confrontational approach remains.
This is an over-reaction and likely to be counter-productive. It is the wrong approach, and it is too late. It preaches to the converted and further polarises any debate, which is probably exactly what protesters (and there are not very many active ones, but a lot of interested and concerned people) would like to see. Few people are ultimately likely to back activity that might amount to criminal damage, and upping the stakes will probably make security at the trial site even more of headache than it presumably is already.
What this case highlights is the need to engage in dialogue sooner rather than later, since engaging later risks leading to a slanging match. The scientists at Rothamsted have taken a very human approach, openly explaining their motives and offering discussion. But starting a dialogue once the decision to run a trial has already been taken is a difficult position to be in even if, and not much has been made of this, extensive and due governance has been gone through with Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.
So, what could or should be done differently, and what are the lessons for the future? If there is a role for GM, it will need to carry sufficient public support and accept public influence, not just here but in countries around the world, both for the purposes and directions of research and for its implications and applications. Because opinions are now so strong and entrenched, that means that research funders, institutions and indeed individual scientists would be well advised to explore and understand public views and values before they take specific decisions about priorities for research.
This current case also implies that they should be particularly sensitive as to whether what they are proposing to do is an experiment in a controlled environment or whether it is in reality a deployment of the technology with risks of wider impact, even if that impact may be judged by most people to be very low. Putting this in a wider context, such as global food security, implies that the research community as a whole should reflect on the choice of focus on particular technologies and applications judged against other ways of addressing the same problems. Interdisciplinary exchange and debate is vital within the scientific community itself.
For GM, the challenge remains balancing discussion of the issues in a broad context, with the necessary case-by-case approach to specific potential applications. It is not easy, and strident calls to the barricades are not helpful.