Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - February 1, 2004:
* The Cartagena Protocol and Public Goods Research
* GM Crops, Beyond Human Control?
* Indian Environmental Activist Gets the "Borlaug Award"
* Re: Is the World Social Forum relevant?
* Winning Public Confidence by Discrediting the Green Lobby
* GM Pharma Plants Will Boost Biotech Acceptance in Developing countrie
* Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on Biotech
* Are We Too Risk Averse? Yes and No
* .... Don't Eliminate the Expert & Don't Denigrate Specialists
* Managing Threats to Scientific Credibility
The Cartagena Protocol and Public Goods Research
- Willy De Greef, Guest Editorial, BioScience News and Advocate, Feb. 2,
February 2004 is an important month for the future of agricultural
biotechnology. This month, the first meeting of the parties to the
Cartagena Protocol will set the scene for the evolving international
regulatory framework on GMOs. Four years after the finalisation of the
negotiation of the Protocol, and 5 months after its entry into force, it
is time to take stock.
The protocol has contributed to a more harmonized approach towards
biosafety assessment and management. Most countries are establishing
governance structures which, if implemented with care and foresight, could
provide a solid regulatory framework for the future success of
biotechnology. However, there is also cause for concern. The provisions of
the Protocol which should have been operational upon its entry into force,
most importantly the Biosafety Clearing House, are not ready.
Moreover, the Protocol has a fundamental flaw which is threatening the
future of biotechnology research. The Protocol encourages countries to
adopt an "all or nothing" approach to the creation of their biosafety
framework. There is only one procedure for AIA (Advanced Informed
Agreement) for first introduction of an LMO (Living Modified Organism)
across national borders, regardless of the purpose or the scale of its
intended field use. This means that requests for experimental release are
treated in the same way as request for commercial scale release. The
Protocol, by refusing to distinguish between research and unrestricted
release, has therefore made it difficult for developing countries to move
through the learning curve we have benefited from in the industrialized
It is not sufficiently appreciated how important it was for leading
countries to be able to regulate contained use in the seventies,
experimental release in the eighties and commercial release in the
nineties. This step-by-step approach has allowed governance bodies to
become experienced in the technology while the technology itself evolved
from the laboratory to the experimental field to the farm and the food
chain. This approach of “learning by doing”, essential for an effective
precautionary approach to innovation, is not foreseen in the Protocol.
The most important impact of this approach is on public research. It is
becoming difficult for the public goods research community to test the
products of their projects in the field, especially if this includes
moving GM crops from a molecular biology laboratory in the EU to field
sites in developing countries. The EU has created implementing legislation
for the Protocol which makes it mandatory that transboundary movement of
LMOs created in the EU to a destination outside the EU will not only be
subjected to an approval in the receiving country, but also in the EU
country of origin. Given the extreme difficulties to obtain approvals for
even experimental releases in some EU member states, and given that this
EU risk assessment would consider both experimental and large scale
release impacts, it may be expected that many projects involving the
creation of GM crops for the developing world will face new hurdles to
move to the field.
This means that public goods research will slip further behind schedule,
compared to the commercial applications that currently dominate farm-grown
GM crops. As a result, the claim that there are no public goods GM
solutions in the pipeline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is
essential that the biotech research community recognizes this strategic
threat to the exchange of research materials, and that it participates
more actively in the development of the implementing measures of the
Cartagena Protocol. Without a rational framework for experimental release,
most of the promising public goods research currently in the labs will
remain just that: a promise.
GM Crops, Beyond Human Control?
- David Walker, Open i (UK), Feb. 2, 2004 (via Agnet)
It is increasingly evident that the challenge that the UK faces with
genetically modified crops relates not to their control, but to the
control of political decision making. (650 words)
Current UK regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops appears to be
based on the supposition that once released for general use they are some
how beyond human control, like a raging tiger or virulent disease. This
concept seems increasingly quaint in the context of current concerns about
how GM crops should be managed to avoid excessive weed control and their
increasingly universal release outside Europe.
The UK's Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) Regulations
2002 states its purpose as "ensuring that all appropriate measures are
taken to avoid damage to the environment which may arise from the escape
or release from human control of genetically modified organisms."
This piece of legislation is an amendment to the Environment Protection
Act of 1990 mandated by a 2001 European Union directive. "The escape or
release from human control" element is a carry over from the 1990 Act,
rather than anything dictated by Brussels in 2001. This rather dated
concept is also apparent in the title of the committee responsible for
advising the government on the commercialization of GM crops, the Advisory
Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).
Justifiable concern over genetically engineering of crop varieties, food
safety and the environment has been fading fast in recent years as all
such questions seem to have been answered. It is almost ten years since
the technology was first used commercially in the US. The growth in its
use has been rapid, as has its spread to almost all agriculturally
significant areas of the world, Europe excepted.
This has left Europe as something of a technological backwater. This is
very unfortunate as in terms of the rate of adoption it must surely be one
of the more successful technological developments of all time.
As with any innovation, there can never, of course, be any co mplete and
ultimate guarantee that nothing adverse will occur, but the extreme
caution being exercised over GM crops at this time both in the UK and more
widely in western Europe looks increasingly misplaced.
The question arises as to why decision making processes in UK and the EU
have failed society the way they have. That this should be such a
challenge for the EU was to be expected. It is a legendary Tower of Babel
when decisions have to be made. Processes for decision making on
genetically modified organi sms have, however, at last been put in place,
even if they are hardly conducive for decisive action as there seems to be
more than enough opportunity for political backtracking on scientific
For the UK political circumstance has been the challenge. Back in the
spring of 1999 the opportunity to press ahead presented itself. The
governing British Labour party had the kind of parliamentary majority that
might seem to have allowed it to act decisively. But this majority was the
consequence of a wide spectrum of philosophy with the left of the party
very much opposed to the technology which had been developed by private
With the government espousing to accept scientific opinion on the issue,
the decision to undertake a three-year study was sufficiently credible to
be accepted. The political reality was probably that it was expected that
the decision would be easier to make after three years. Almost four years
later the need to make the decision is more urgent, but the political
environment is also more challenging as the government seems to be
increasingly divided with each successive issue it has to face.
The biggest irony, however, is that the human control of GM crops in terms
of using herbicide techniques for weed control is now an issue, when those
techniques could just as easily be used to control the GM crops themselves
and when the stated purpose of relevant regulation presumes GM crops in
the field are beyond human control.
It is the decision making process on GM crops rather than the crops
themselves which is in danger of being beyond human control.
Environmental Activist Skpetical of Green Revolution and Biotech Crops
Gets the "Borlaug Award" from an Agrichemical Company
AgBioWorld has learnt that the respected environmental activist Dr. Suman
Sahai of India has been awarded the Borlaug Award. We offer
congratulations to her for this award. "The award is given annually to an
Indian scientist for making a significant contribution in any area
relating to agriculture and food security, besides environmental awareness
and its contribution to sustainable development." Dr. Sahai was also
recently recognized as among the ten most effective environmental
activists by the respected publication 'India Today.'
The 'Borlaug Award' is from the Coromandel fertilizers in India
http://www.cflindia.com whose parent company Muruguappa Group
http://www.murugappa.com also owns EID Parrys, maker of pesticides. Dr.
Sahai, interestingly, has been rather critical of the Green Revolution and
has actively campaigned against the use of chemicals in farming and is
skeptical of the GM crops.
Nevertheless, she is an effective campaigner who is relatively more
moderate and reasonable than many environmental activists, and deserves
Subba Rao, Suman Sahai get Borlaug award
NEW DELHI, JAN. 30. Coromandel Fertilisers, a unit of the Murugappa Group,
has bestowed the Norman Borlaug award for 2004 on I.V. Subba Rao, soil
scientist, and Suman Sahai, scientist-activist and Director of Gene
Dr. Rao has been honoured for his research and contribution in soil
sciences and as an educator in the year 2004 -- the year declared by the
United Nations as the `International Year of Rice'. The award recognises
his contribution in improving the productivity, profitability and
sustainability of major farming systems.
Dr. Sahai has been chosen for the award for her dedication in organising
the 'Gene Campaign' and for promoting scientific awarenessin the year
declared as the 'Year for Scientific Awareness'. She has had a
distinguished academic career in the field of genetics. She obtained her
Ph. D from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, New Delhi. She has
served on the faculties of universities in Alberta, Canada and Chicago and
also as Professor of Genetics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
During the last decade and a half, she has, through `Gene Campaign', a
non-government organisation, fostered genetic and trade literacy among
farmers and the general public. The Borlaug award, named after the famous
scientist who helped India's `Green Revolution,' carries a cash award of
Rs. 1 lakh ($2100), a gold medal and a citation. The awards will be given
at a function here on February 5. The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, will
inaugurate the function.
Re: Is the World Social Forum relevant?
- Dr. S. Shantharam, President. Biologistics International, LLC
I applaud you for posting Barun Mitra's and Vandana Shiva's articles on
WSF from The Economic Times of India. That goes to show that Agbioworld is
a pluralistic forum. One need not take sides on any of the political
ideology these two authors articulate, but it is always nice to know
different perspectives. Differences of opinion expressed by Mitra and
Shiva are as old as human thoughts on modern economic development.
Continents and nations will continue to fight these ideological
differences for a long time to come. In the meanwhile, ordinary mortals
will have to eke out a living with whatever opportunity they can get and
they do so as well.
From all that I have seen, economic opportunities don't come for free.
People with creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship in private and
public sector have what caused this unprecedented prosperity for most of
the people, that the world has not seen until the 20th century.
We all should feel for are some 800 million people in the world who go
hungry and disenfranchised in the world and they have no voice in the
system. They are in fact, the neediest of all people of the benefits of
modern technology. Corporate social responsibility is supposed just all
about democratizing the technologies so that the needy people get a crack
at it. I think it has been demonstrated amply. Obstructionists and
obscurantists must just get out of the way if they want to see modern
biotechnology reach the poor and benefit them.
Keep up the good work
Winning Public Confidence by Discrediting the Green Lobby
- Gordon Couger
How can we win the public confidence when we can't hold our own. I just
got my wife to stop giving money to environmental organizations. She was
raised on a farm. She worked side by side with me in the field and took
less time than I did deciding to install drip irrigation on 125 acres of
dry land in west Texas than I did. My kids buy organic food and will
inherit part one of the oldest ranches in the United States. My son sure
knows how a farm works. He spent two years of college in Ag Engineering.
They had enough sense to stay out of the stock market and considering
walking away from the rat race in Silicone Valley at 35 and can afford to
do it and still fall for the greens' line of crap. The greens are more of
a religious movement than a scientific one an attacking them with reason
is not very productive.
The greens have a very good sales pitch and we don't. Not only that we
treat them as equals in the press. We are conceding a lot of territory to
people we should be treating as kooks.
We don't need to speak up. We need people in the public eye exposing the
green lobby for what it is and telling the story over and over until
people here and believe it. We need an entirely different group selling
our side of the story. I think we have neglected the considerable
environmental benefits of Round Up resistant technology and nearly
completely ignored the fact that cotton consumes 25% of the insecticide
used on this earth and Bt cotton can cut that 50 to 70%. The reductions of
mycotoixins in Bt corn grain and the high levels of mycotoxins in organic
grain are a natural to turn the tables on the organic claim of healthy
The US has fared better because the pubic trust in science is higher
because of the USGS, FDA, and USDA -- government science agencies with a
long history of good work. But the FDA, EPA and collaboration of public
and private research are coming under more and more fire that tarnishes
the reputation of all science.
We have the tools to provide sustainable agriculture. We need to sell that
hard and not let the green lobby use it against us.
We also need to attack their funding by pressing the foundations that fund
them to cut off their money by what ever means it takes. In the case of
Earth Liberation Front and PETA the law will probably do the job as they
investigate the tax-free money they get. But connecting the failure of
green revolution and disease eradication in the third world to the green
lobby makes a very strong image. The rise of malaria due to green
imperialism is a good start. The story just need to be told over and over
Gordon Couger is a Retired Farmer; www.couger.com/gcouger
GM Plants Producing Pharma Proteins Will Boost Biotech Acceptance in
- Ramanjini Gowda , Univ. Ag Sciences, India
Popularisation of Recombinant vaccines in plants may help improve the
public acceptance and understanding of GM crops in Developing countries.
The Biotech products will gain importance automatically when it clearly
meets a perceived need. If one sees the marketing of recombinant DNA drugs
by medical biotech, there is no public backlash against it. Thus,
bringing plant-derived vaccines and other pharmaceuticals to developing
countries may help public acceptance of biotech crops eventually. People
in developing countries are less receptive to transgenic foods, because of
low literacy and also the complexity of the biotech products. There is
clearly much potential of transgenic plants to improve disease and pest
resistancem and thus enhance yields in under developed and developing
countries but such crops can come next.
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on Biotech
- USA Today, Jan. 27, 2004 (Forwarded by Michael Fumento)
Q: If tech isn't the Valley's superfast growth industry, what will rule in
A: This is just the beginning of the biotech revolution. It's going to
change our world even more than computers did. I own a couple of biotech
companies, and one thing that's particularly frustrating for me is the
gestation time from an idea to a product.
Government regulators are very careful to make sure that no one commits an
error, so they put you through all these tests. And it sounds perfectly
reasonable. But if you delay a drug 10 years and 100,000 people die
because you delayed the drug, that should be included in the calculus, but
it isn't. They only count people that the drug killed because it came out
too early. It's just fascinating to me the way we look at these things. I
just think the calculus is incorrect.
Q: How will biotech change things more than computers?
A: To some degree, it already has. We're living longer. We're living
healthier, which is by and large a good thing, except that Social Security
is inevitably bankrupt. The social welfare system is under tremendous
stress because we are living longer. This is an example of biotechnology
extending life and putting social, political and economic pressure on us.
That really will change our world and cause us to think about these issues
more than computing.
Are We Too Risk Averse?
Yes 'Fear of the unknown has become one of the major barriers to social,
scientific and technological advance'
- Helene Guldberg, managing editor, spiked, Jan. 27, 2004
We are living in an increasingly risk-averse society, which is prone to
panic about everything from how we raise our children to the food that we
eat. Headlines such as 'Sugar, salt and fat - the real weapons of mass
destruction' are not unusual today . A small outbreak of severe acute
respiratory syndrome (SARS) can turn into a global health alert that
damages the world economy. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth, a non-fatal
animal disease, can result in the paralysis of much of the UK and the
postponement of a general election. A minor derailment can lead to one of
London's underground train lines being closed for weeks.
The current propensity to fear the worst seems to have a particular
resonance when it comes to science. Science is by its very nature risky:
experimentation involves investigating the unknown, and producing
unforeseen consequences. While scientific and technological developments
minimise or even eradicate old risks, they do tend to expose us to new and
often unpredictable risks.
But these are risks that are worth taking. Without experimentation and
innovation there can be no progress. spiked asked internationally renowned
scientists to list the significant discoveries and achievements that would
have been limited or prevented, had past societies adopted the
precautionary principle (the better-safe-than-sorry maxim that
predominates today). Between them, respondents came up with an A-Z of
historic achievements that would have been thwarted: including
antibiotics, the contraceptive pill, in vitro fertilisation and x-rays .
Alan Irwin asks 'why should anyone accept additional risk - no matter how
improbable - if the benefits were not clear?'. This may sound like common
sense. However, it may not be possible to anticipate all future benefits
of current discoveries and inventions. Take aspirin. If we had weighed up
the hypothetical risks against the hypothetical benefits, would we ever
have allowed the drug to be licensed? The drug has considerable adverse
side-effects. Yet the benefits are vast and still being discovered: apart
from the treatment of inflammatory pain, there is also treatment of
cancer, heart disease and the prevention of deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Many of these benefits derived from aspirin could not have been
We do need to accept that scientific and technological advances will often
be accompanied by new risks. We cannot eliminate all risks - nor should we
aspire to. Sometimes the consequences of experimentation can be costly.
But just as there are risks in experimenting, there are risks in not
experimenting. Slowing the development of new and better drugs, for
instance, could deny potentially life-saving innovations for those
suffering from malaria, AIDS, cancer and heart disease.
History has shown us that, while scientific and technological progress may
often introduce new risks, its general trajectory has been to reduce many
other more serious risks. Examples are plentiful: including the
development of vaccinations, organ transplantation, blood transfusion and
the use of pesticides. Adopting the better-safe-than-sorry principle will
not make us any safer, but could make us very sorry indeed.
But why are we so scared? The 'irrational public' is often blamed for the
current state of affairs. However, the problem stems much more from a
nervous and insecure elite. The media do play a role in fuelling panics.
But the scientific and political elites also have a lot to answer for.
Fearful of being accused of complacency, they fail to allay public fears
and often play up hypothetical risks. Conscious of their lack of
legitimacy and with an exaggerated view of the public's unease about
science, they create the conditions for an unhealthy public debate that
discourages a more forward-looking view of the future.
This outlook was summed up by Geoff Mulgan, head of Downing Street's
Performance and Innovation Unit, who toldspiked's Panic Attack conference
at the Royal Institution in May 2003 that the government's policy towards
issues such as bio-terrorism or SARS in the UK is now to be based on the
principle of 'Organised Paranoia' . The Independent Expert Group on
Mobile Phones was launched in 1999 at the behest of then minister for
public health Tessa Jowell, to 'keep ahead of public anxiety'.
Our concern at spiked is that this risk-aversion has become one of the
major barriers to social, scientific and technological advance - and we
aim to challenge the culture of precaution. The aim of the present series
of events, supported by the Wellcome Trust, is to explore the extent to
which society's unease about the new and the unknown impacts upon
No 'Rather than representing citizens as risk-averse, we should be
engaging more with what people want from technical change.'
- Alan Irwin, professor of sociology, Brunel University, Jan. 27, 2004
In a speech to the Royal Society in April 2002, UK prime minister Tony
Blair outlined his fear that countries such as India were about to
'leapfrog' the UK in the biotech business. He recalled meeting a group of
Bangalore academics, who thought that Europe had 'gone soft on science'
and that the European debate about genetically modified (GM) foods was
'utterly astonishing'. Blair's argument was that we stand at a crossroads.
Either we choose a path of timidity in the face of the unknown, or else we
opt to be a 'nation at ease with radical knowledge, not fearful of the
In the summer of 2003, the government conducted a major public debate
about GM and the growing of GM crops. Some of the key messages to emerge
were that 'people are generally uneasy about GM', 'the more people engage
in GM issues, the harder their attitudes and more intense their concerns'
and that 'there is little support for early commercialisation' .
Following the debate, over 100 leading scientists wrote to Blair with what
The Times (London) described as a 'once-in-a-generation appeal'. The
scientists stressed their demoralisation in the face of public hostility
and the government's 'failure to contradict false claims about
"Frankenfoods", health risks and "superweeds"'. Criticising the government
for allowing this 'backward slide', the letter argued that 'we risk seeing
other technologies lose out to prejudice and procrastination'. Scientific
bodies are already worrying about the future public reaction to
nanotechnology - with the unusual partnership of Prince Charles and the
author Michael Crichton portrayed as stirring up anxiety and aversion.
The argument that the general public is both irrational and risk-averse is
not new. It has long been fashionable to compare risks according to a
statistical yardstick and note the apparent absurdity of people worrying
about 'perceived' rather than 'real' threats. The nuclear industry was
once keen on this approach: why worry about the remote risk of radioactive
release when crossing the road is more dangerous?
But this isn't just about the risks. The question is: why would anyone
accept additional risk - no matter how improbable - if the benefits were
not clear? This view that risks make no sense without matching benefits
emerged during the GM debate. Whatever the risk, if the need for a new
technology has not been demonstrated, why go ahead?
I attended one of the regional GM meetings. Of course, others might have
been taken over by hysterical hordes, but what I saw was a mature
discussion among mature people. What took place in Harrogate was a calm
and intelligent reflection, a serious treatment of serious issues. Surely
we should be encouraging that kind of engagement rather than presenting it
as a backward slide?
In my experience, there is very little anti-science feeling among the
general public - but there can be a sort of 'anti-public' feeling among
some of those who claim to speak for science 3 . Members of the public
will often express caution about the advantages of new science and
technology. But it is no use muttering about Luddism when people are
simply asking how society will gain from new medical technologies or
biobanks. To some degree, I can understand scientists' impatience to get
ahead with what they see as significant progress. Nevertheless, other
voices have a right to be heard, without being dismissed as hysterical.
So what's the answer? First, let's recognise that science is too important
to be left to scientists alone. We should accept that scientists don't
have the monopoly on rationality. Those who are critical of public opinion
would do well to join the next consensus conference, citizen's jury 4 or
regional debate (although they may have to wait since all of these are in
short supply). Once their prejudices about the public are put to one side,
they might just find that they have something to learn as well as
Next, we should appreciate that risks can't be separated from the contexts
in which they occur. In the case of GM, that means considering the
perceived influence of US companies and the feeling that there are better
solutions to world poverty than another technological fix. Honest
reflection on the ethical and philosophical issues should not be labelled
Finally, we could move to a culture where public opinion is seen as an
essential constituent of progress - rather than as an impediment. Doesn't
the representation of the public as risk-averse suggest a decidedly
arrogant posture in the face of expressed concerns? Rather than
representing citizens as risk-averse, we should be engaging more
thoroughly with what people actually want from technical change. Of
course, this is no easy option - but there is no sustainable alternative.
What about the fear that Europe will be leapfrogged if it indulges in
caution and deliberation? First of all, the long-term difficulties of
ignoring public opinion are likely to be immense - civil nuclear power is
an example of this. Secondly, rather than taking a backward slide into an
outmoded world of deference and denial, Europe could present itself as
possessing a richer culture of open debate and robust engagement. Only
such a culture can fully develop and exploit new technological and social
Alan Irwin is professor of sociology at Brunel University, west London.
His most recent book (co-authored with Mike Michael) is Science, Social
Theory and Public Knowledge, Open University Press, 2003..
Read some excellent readers' responses to this debate at
Don't Eliminate the Expert
- Harry Roedersheimer, USA, Jan 29. 2004
Alan Irwin makes an astounding statement: 'Science is too important to be
left to scientists alone.'
This is only the latest in a series of such bizarre stances taken in our
culture - education shouldn't be left to the educators, policing shouldn't
be left to the police, and now, science shouldn't be left to the
scientists. In other words, eliminate the expert. Eliminate the person who
has spent years examining all of the ramifications of an act, a position,
a change - because we can't trust anyone who might know more than we do,
The single most productive scientific endeavour in our lifetimes has been
what was once called the 'space race'. Computers, transistor radios,
dehydrated foods, purified air, cable television, cell phones - the wealth
of innovations that developed from the race to the moon has fuelled entire
economies, Japan's for example. But a new generation of witchhunters has
arisen. They look at things like biomedicine and genetically engineered
food, and they attack the product. 'Perhaps we shouldn't eradicate cancer.
After all, maybe God wanted us to have cancer.' I'm sure that the vaccine
developer Jonas Salk heard similar arguments about polio.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that interprets 'all men are created
equal' as 'all men have developed equally'. Obviously, they haven't. If
brain surgery is necessary, I want a brain surgeon doing the job. You can
opt for a politician or a journalist, if you want - I'll take the brain
Don't Denigrate Specialist Knowledge
- Caspar Hewett, chair, The Great Debate, UK ; Jan 20, 2004
As a scientist and educator, what worries me the most about the discussion
of risk today is the denigration of specialist knowledge. I do not think
this originates from the general public, but rather is a reflection of a
lack of confidence of scientists and academics. There was a time when
these experts had sufficient confidence in their own knowledge and
capabilities to defend social and technological change robustly.
Alan Irwin's view that we should be engaging more with what people want
from technical change is precisely the sort of defensiveness that is
typical today. Irwin discusses a meeting on genetic modification that he
attended, and says that he witnessed 'a mature discussion among mature
people'. This is no surprise to me - I have spent a number of years
putting on challenging, discussion-based courses and public debates on a
range of topics, and I consistently find an intelligent, open-minded
audience, happy to engage and keen to understand more.
However, I would not make the mistake of giving the views of the lay
person equal weight to the views of the expert. Specialist knowledge takes
years of hard work, discipline and experience to acquire, and deference to
experts reflects this. To suggest otherwise is to denigrate knowledge
itself, and reveals a deeply irrational view. When I have organised or
taken part in discussions around issues such as nanotechnology or genetic
modification, I have found that much of the objection to the new
technology is suspicion based on gut feeling, and people often become more
sympathetic to new developments as their knowledge grows.
This is not to say that we should blindly follow expert advice at all
junctures, but to be guided by fear and mistrust is far more problematic
than taking a few risks. There can be no change without taking risks, and
there can be no science without uncertainty. Risk aversion is a paralysing
force, and as such should be defended against not just by scientists, but
by anyone who believes in change for the better.
Managing Threats to Scientific Credibility
- Robert B. Gravani and Gilbert A. Leveille, Foodtechnology 39 Vol. 58,
No.1; Jan. 2004; Introduction and concluding para below.
Over the past several years, a growing challenge to scientific research
has emerged in the United States. Beginning with the publication of a
series of articles in prestigious medical journals and spreading to the
mass media, the way research is funded, reviewed, and communicated has
come under increasing scrutiny.
Although the initial medical journal focus was on the impact of
pharmaceutical research on physicians and the practice of medicine, the
concerns raised ultimately pose a serious threat to the credibility of
mainstream scientific endeavor, with broad implications for food science.
Concern over the issue and its potential impact on research led to a forum
on credibility in science at the Institute of Food Technologists’ 2003
Annual Meeting + Food Expo® last July. Panelists shared their differing
perspectives and described ways of responding to a growing threat to
science communications. They agreed that the issue is long-term and will
need to be managed on an ongoing basis.
The threat, if it goes unanswered, could seriously undermine the
confidence that both policy makers and the public have had up to now in
the strong science foundation that underlies the U.S. food safety and
nutrition regulatory structure. A crisis of confidence, if it comes to
that, would impact not only the availability of talent and financial
resources for research, but also the influence accorded science in public
decision making; the prestige and reputation of the great research
institutions; and the credibility of the scientists who do the research.
In short, the threat is to scientific research, the continued provision of
a scientific perspective to policy advisory groups, and the communication
of well-grounded science to the public, who desperately need to better
understand science and the implications for food issues.
Communication Is Essential. There is one additional point to be made: good
science demands good communication. Like other industries in a free
economy, science flourishes when the public demand for it is robust. It is
crucial that scientists promote public curiosity in their work and public
confidence in the quality of their product. In an era of rapid and
unrelenting media presence, managing the credibility issue will ultimately
require more than following good rules. Scientists and scientific
organizations will do well to become advocates for their enterprise. Food
safety and nutrition research and the development of new food production
technologies are too important to allow for anything but the highest
public trust in the integrity and openness of the work.
Awareness and understanding of the threat need to grow substantially in
the scientific community, if researchers are to keep their place at the
table of responsible public discourse. The challenge to their credibility
and that of the work they do is real and immediate. The issue cannot be
resolved with a speech or an editorial or even a series of public
discussions. It must be managed, on a continuing basis, whenever the need
arises; and it will arise increasingly in the months ahead.