May 3, 2012

Why Sense About Science is being unhelpful about GM

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 4:19 pm

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.

13 Responses to “Why Sense About Science is being unhelpful about GM”

  1. Mary says:

    If you just found out about this, it’s because of the success of the SAS outreach. If you had been paying attention before, you would have found out that the scientists and supporters have been working for a long time on trying to reach out.

    It has become urgent because it has become clearer that the destruction is looming.

  2. Dan Olner says:

    “It is not easy, and strident calls to the barricades are not helpful.”

    It’s an eloquent piece, but it’s also a cop-out. What, exactly, should Rothamsted do to protect their trial? Or should they do nothing, and instead agree with you that “well, we were clearly too late in trying to include these people in our dialogue?”

    The takebackourflour folk have built a website around a notion of a franken-cow wheat that has no basis in scientific fact. I have a great deal of sympathy with problems of control over our food system, but their action is like attacking an NHS hospital to protest against the commercialisation of healthcare.

    What do you think should be done about the proposed destruction of the crop, if anything? Have you seen their open letter from today – doesn’t the list of inaccuracies in that require some kind of response? If so, what?

  3. How long was the ACRE public consultation on this last summer? Who contributed?

    What did researchers do in response to that?

    What previous discussions have been held at Rothamsted with the local community? With local and national media? Local and national environmental campaign groups? Farmers groups?

    What is the relationship between Rothamsted choosing to do work in this area and the public’s priorities set out in previous discussions, viz that they prefer such research to be of environmental benefit, not for private profit and to make more use of natural processes?

    What consideration did Rothamsted researchers give to others’ engagement experiences, eg at John Innes Centre, on other outdoor work?

    What was Sense About Science’s reaction to the security based approach to the announced vandalism, as preferred by the Home Office?

    In what ways did Sense About Science advocate engagement with this and with a wider public?

    How much time was spent on that ‘rushed’ petition? How many environmentalists and non scientists have put thoughtful comments on it? What are their questions? How have we and others been engaging with those?

    Roland Jackson, you don’t know because you haven’t asked, or looked around you at much of the considered discussion, and as a consequence you have written a very poorly informed piece that aims to confirm your a priori views. You should try engaging, and a bit earlier in the process of drawing your conclusions.

  4. Darren says:

    Public support is clearly an issue for GM. But personal opinions aside about the Sense About Science campaign, your assertion that the scientists only started “a dialogue once the decision [had been made] to run a trial” is not backed up by evidence.

    The scientists at Rothamsted have in fact been having open discussions about GM, their research and future trials for a long time. For example through public discussion forums, their open days and contributions to the ‘Making sense of GM’ guide published back in 2009, they have always promoted the science and facts behind GM.

    The problem GM has is how it has been presented in the media. Both scientists and journalists have a responsibility for this, and unfortunately as is the case with the reports on the Rothamsted trial, not all of the key facts have been presented. For example as reported in the Guardian:
    “..the Rothamsted scientists have surrounded the trial plots with 10 metres of barley and three metres of conventional wheat. No cereals or grasses are grown within 20 metres of the border. Wheat pollen is heavy and travels at most 12 metres.”

  5. Groucho Marx says:

    Great points – and you’ve got to remember Sense About Science and its ilk are run by sociologists (NOT scientists), and heavily inflected with the more or less crack-pot elements of the British extreme left (remember ‘Living Marxism’, anyone?). Take a look at some of their publications – and their track record. How on earth did we hand over ’science’ to these guys? Isn’t it time to ‘take back the science’ and initiate a proper conversation, as you suggest?

  6. algernon says:

    Excellent analysis. Readers may also find it useful to read Gordon Conway (Rockefeller Foundation) 1999 speech to Monsanto, which implored Monsanto to be far more attentive to the social ramifications of genetically engineered seeds. Google this, and it should get you to the right place: “The Rockefeller Foundation and Plant Biotechnology Gordon Conway Rockefeller Foundation June 24 1999″ .

  7. Roland Jackson says:

    I think the post may be seen as too provocative, and if so I apologise. The point I am trying to make, though it risks getting lost in collateral arguments, is that mounting a campaign at this point is more likely to make the situation worse not better; by ‘worse’ I mean that we will be less able to have an open dialogue that might help resolves these issues. The fact that it has got to the point at which people can consider what would seem to be potentially criminal activity to stop it means that that the process has failed somewhere, despite the outward-looking work of the scientists involved. It is the current response to that situation, to up the stakes by encouraging a massive reaction, that risks polarised discussion and makes it even less likely that there will be a sensible debate next time around. That is why I think it is counterproductive. I may be wrong, but it has already stimulated ideas about people going there to oppose the opposers, or trash organic allotments. That way leads madness, and certainly not a resolution, and I’m sure Sense About Science would decry any such activity. This is a legal trial, following the consultation carried out through ACRE which I specifically referred to, and Rothamsted has every right to go ahead, but this approach to it has not made the security position any easier. There is much interesting discussion on the campaign pages (which of course I have looked at) but that’s not really the point. We should not have got to this position. Now that we have, the question is what is best in the long-term interest of science for public benefit that carries widespread public support. I don’t think this campaign helps to resolve that, though I’ll be delighted if it does, and the move this morning to a possible dialogue is a good sign.

    Overall though, the current modes of communication and consultation, however well-intentioned, have so far failed to bridge the gap in understanding, and it may be time to try a different approach. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and although consensus on this may not be achievable, it is probably the case that if we had had genuine dialogue through respected intermediaries at much earlier stages, perhaps following on from the consensus conference on biotechnology in the 90s, which got little traction at the time, we might have a better understanding of how to proceed. I hope it’s not too late now.

  8. Roland, I have written a blog in response to your earlier piece here, http://www.matterforall.org/blog, but in response to your comment:

    “The fact that it has got to the point at which people can consider what would seem to be potentially criminal activity to stop it means that that the process has failed somewhere, despite the outward-looking work of the scientists involved.” and your mention of ‘bridging the gap in understanding’ – that does sound suspiciously like a concept of ‘If we talk to them and involve them enough they will see our point of view and back off’.

    I think in these instances, it doesn’t necessarily mean the process has failed because it fails to persuade people to take the action they feel is justified. However it does mean that perhaps sometimes there will be views which are unturnable, and entrenched, perhaps on emotional or moral grounds as well as scientific or mistaken scientific grounds. Then what?

    There will be these occasions as these emerging technologies become closer to being used. We will not be able to reconcile opinions and tread a middle way or persuade certain groups of the rightness of the course. All we can do is make sure we have done our due diligence, considered as far as possible the HSE, ethical or moral issues and are very transparent about the rationale, trade offs being made and importantly benefits in the round to the chosen course of action. It is this transparency about trade offs which I think is most important and which doesn’t happen at the moment.

    As I say in the blog, we have to start acting on what the public have told us in no uncertain terms that they expect, and then perhaps explain clearly why the final course has been chosen, acknowledging these trade offs and differences in public opinion as part of that process.

  9. Dan Olner says:

    “The fact that it has got to the point at which people can consider what would seem to be potentially criminal activity to stop it means that that the process has failed somewhere.”

    It does not mean that. I’ve spent a lot of time in climate-denial-related arguments, and this is making the same mistake – the existence of climate denial cannot be laid at the feet of working climate scientists. The same applies here. That is not to deny the need to work on more effective communication and science governance, but I think you should be very wary of saying: “destroying crop = therefore scientists have failed.” Absolutely not, any more than Michael Mann or James Hansen have failed.

  10. Emily Jesper, Sense About Science says:

    Discussion with researchers happening now: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/plant-science-qa.html.

    The topic is cross fertilisation which has also been called contamination, this has been prominent in discussion over the last few days.

  11. Simon Burall says:

    As the Sciencewise Head of Dialogue, I am delighted to add my comments to this important discussion.

    The GM debate seems destined to inflame passions and polarise debate. This now appears to be spilling over into the conversation about the best way to have a conversation at all.

    We know that no technology is neutral; no technology has a single trajectory to the ‘right’ outcome. Technology develops through historical contingency, and decisions that researchers and funders make about the direction to go. While the current debate about the wheat at Rothampstead is framed almost exclusively around issues of safety and cross-contamination, we also know that the issues are much wider than this. They are about the relationship between the technology and society, economics, politics, power and governance.

    Previous Sciencewise dialogues have shown us that when the public are provided with the space and time to digest information about a scientific development or emerging technology they tend to offer conditional support for the area of research. Their support is contingent on a number of things including, for example, that benefits and risks are distributed equitably, that it addresses real needs within society, and that clear thought has been given to its regulation as it gets rolled out into mainstream application.

    From the Sciencewise perspective, more confrontational approaches bring real dangers. These dangers include developing a polarised debate that focuses on the science rather than opening up a dialogue on key undecided issues that will help to shape an acceptable direction for the technology in question. We know from work at Involve [LINK TO http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk/ that conflict and ‘political’ debates put the majority of people off. Polarising the debate further therefore risks cutting out the voices of the majority who have a legitimate and, probably largely unformed, view.

    The danger in the case under discussion here is that it is seen as a static issue, around this particular research project. Seen in this context it is understandable that people want to take a stand and either destroy or stop the destruction of the research. However, the issues that are driving the development of GM crops are not going away, this is a problem with a much wider canvas. The question is how we cool the debate about a particular instance and find a way of having a conversation that includes the majority rather than alienating and drowning them out.

  12. Peter Melchett says:

    As someone who has been involved in removing part of a GM crop in a previous trial in 1999, I read Roland’s article and the subsequent comments with interest. I don’t think one point, about the nature of the trial, has been picked up. Roland said: “This current case also implies that they [the scientists trialling GM wheat] 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.” This is the key argument, and depending on your view of the risk, the trial either becomes justifiable science with minimal risk, or an irresponsible action carrying with it unjustifiable (even if low) risk of serious environmental damage.

    The 28 Greenpeace volunteers (of which I was one) who removed part of a GM maize field trial crop in 2009 believed that the GM crop did pose an unjustifiable risk. The jury in the subsequent trial accepted that this was the genuine and reasonable view of the volunteers, after three weeks of evidence given on oath and cross examined, and found the volunteers not guilty of criminal damage. So the court found that this was not justifiable science. Interestingly, in recent years, much new scientific evidence has supported the jury’s view. For example, research in Sweden found viable GM seeds at a site used for a scientific trial over a decade earlier, and supposedly ‘decontaminated’. More recent research has found that varieties of GM wheat are outcrossing to other plants at a rate six times higher than non-GM wheat. [1] Other research has shown that wheat can outcross from commercial fields to crops over 2.75 kilometres away. [2] What scientists at Rothamsted are doing clearly does have, in Roland’s words, ‘risks of wider impact’, even before considering the now well established costs that would be involved in trying to keep GM and non-GM wheat separate throughout the food chain, and the high likelihood of failure.

    Second, Roland notes that: “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 is particularly relevant with wheat, where GM varieties have been available for farmers in the USA and Canada to grow for many years. However, even in these markets, where the GM industry claims widespread acceptance of GM food, no GM wheat has been grown due to rejection by the market. The scientists at Rothamsted might reasonably assume that the reaction of citizens and consumers would be at least as negative in the UK and the rest of the EU as it has proved to be in North America.

    Notes
    [1] Rieben S, Kalinina O, Schmid B and Zeller SL, 2011. “Gene Flow in Genetically Modified Wheat”. PLoS ONE 6(12): e29730. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029730
    [2] GM Freeze, 2012. GM wheat: Cross pollination and contamination

  13. Sam says:

    “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.”

    Surely you’re referring to the confrontational approach of people who “threaten to tear up a field trial” ? After a first paragraph like that, I’m amazed anyone read the entire article.

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