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From: Klaus Ammann
Subject: Debate 2000'0609 a: Commentary of Derek Burke in Nature June 1:
--------------- Time for voices to be raised Scientists must become more
involved in controversial public debates. Attitudes to genetically modified
(GM) foods and organisms so far have tended to be all black and white - GM is
either all good or all bad. Despite guidance from scientists (see
www.dti.gov.uk/ostbusiness/index/htm), media reporting in the
United Kingdom is best captured by the phrase
'Frankenstein food'. And the conclusions: The traditional inclination of
academic researchers has been to comment on but not to become directly
involved in public controversy. That is no longer good enough! Recent
surveys show that scientists, as a group, still have the public's
trust. Surely, therefore,
we have a duty to help the public make decisions, particularly in
areas where science is the subject of campaigns from environmentalist
and other special-interest groups. Let's get to it!
Here is the commentary of a scientist who follows and influences the debate
already for many years in Great Britain and worldwide.
Time for voices to be raised
Scientists must become more involved in controversial public debates.
Attitudes to genetically modified (GM) foods and organisms so far have
tended to be all black and white - GM is either all good or all bad. Despite
guidance from scientists (see www.dti.gov.uk/ostbusiness/index/htm), media
reporting in the United Kingdom is best captured by the phrase 'Frankenstein
What should scientists do about issues like GM foods where there is
widespread resistance to the technology arising from very deeply felt
convictions, some arising from concerns that lie outside science?
How society uses science
I believe that we must now become much more involved in public debates on
how our society uses science and technology to create wealth and a better
quality of life. Otherwise, science will become increasingly marginalized. I
believe too that we scientists must become much more sophisticated about our
relationship with the public, our response to pressure groups, and
especially our dealings with the media in a number of ways.
First, we should not assume that when we explain what we are doing, the
public will always agree with us. Scientists and the public often work with
different value systems: for example, not every scientific discovery is
accepted as being good for society, to take nuclear power and the value of
animal experiments as just two instances.
Second, we need to be much clearer about the complex area of risk and risk
perception. Risk is not objective: different risks are weighted differently
by different groups in society (the contrast between US and European
attitudes to GM technology is a case in point). Risk decisions use judgement
as well as evidence; policy decisions often have to be made before all the
relevant facts are available, for example where there is a public-health
concern, as in the cases of BSE and, currently, mobile telephones. Changes
in societal attitudes have undermined the traditional role of the 'trusted
scientist' as a respected source of advice. Others have to be brought into
the decision - making, with the resultant problem that everyone wants to be
consulted -- but not everyone can be involved.
Third, how should scientists handle the kind of storm that erupted last year
over Arpad Pusztai's claims, subsequently found to have no scientifically
credible foundation (see Nature, 401, 731; 1999), of damage caused to rats'
guts by GM potatoes? Who should respond to the kind of questions posed by
media interviewers like "So the British public is to be treated as
unsuspecting guinea-pigs once again?"? Not retailers, who have been quick to
sacrifice GM food products rather than lose market share. Not individual
companies: Monsanto's brief press campaign was unsuccessful. The public
debate is being left, by default, in the hands of scientists.
There are signs that we are learning how to form a constructive dialogue
with the public. A conference in Edinburgh in February included
representatives from at least 14 developing countries and all the major
'green' groups. It achieved a crystallization into points of agreement,
points of disagreement, and points where knowledge is currently lacking.
There is surprisingly widespread acceptance that the issues are not all
black and white, but need to be addressed on a case by case basis (see
A subsequent email conference, sponsored by the Food and Agriculture
Organisation, on food production in developing countries, is open to all at
email@example.com, and has, attracted over 130 submissions from 27
countries, most in the developing world. Their overwhelming message, as in
Edinburgh, is that the developing world both needs and wants GM technology,
but it must involve appropriate partnerships between the public and the
The agrifood industries have now (not before time given their enormous
resources) taken two initiatives. Cropgen, a UK communications initiative
comprised of "a panel ....from a variety of disciplines including the
biological sciences and consumer affairs" is said to be independent from its
sponsors, who "have all signed an undertaking not to veto any of the
scientific positions or influence the activities of Cropgen." A similar
initiative, sponsored by the Council for Biotechnology in the United States,
is funded by seven agrifood companies and the Biotechnology Industry
Organisation, with a $50 million budget over three to five years. Whether
this advice will be considered 'objective' by the public remains to be seen.
A more hopeful source is the European Union, where Commissioner Philippe
Busquin has just set a high - level group to give advice on the "scientific
aspects of social controversies about biosciences and biotechnology" (see
Nature 405, 54; 2000). At the first meeting last month I was impressed by
the commissioner's determination to bring in scientific advice at the
highest level. I believe that we should do all that we can to help this new
Does GM technology need a permanent international forum to assess its
science and the social implications, as suggested at Edinburgh (see Nature
404, 112; 2000)? One analogy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
has been outstandingly successful, despite some criticism. But for GM foods,
what is viable? How can all the stakeholders be involved, and under whose
auspices -- the UN, the FAO, the WHO? Any such body must be open,
transparent and inclusive. Is there enough international political will to
make this work? I remain to be convinced.
For scientists in academic institutions, listening to the public -- as
advocated by the House of Lords (see
and Nature 404, 211; 2000) -- is made easier by two email information
networks, one run by the Royal Society in London and the other from Bern, to
help those of us who are approached regularly by the media.
Over the past two years the Royal Society has become more proactive to help
meet its objective of ensuring that policy decisions are based on sound
science. It is working with six academies- the US National Academy and five
from less developed counties - to produce a statement on GM plants.
Still trusted by the public
The traditional inclination of academic researchers has been to comment on
but not to become directly involved in public controversy. That is no longer
Recent surveys show that scientists, as a group, still have the public's
trust. Surely, therefore, we have a duty to help the public make decisions,
particularly in areas where science is the subject of campaigns from
environmentalist and other special-interest groups. Let's get to it!
# Derek Burke, 13 Pretoria Rd, Cambridge CB4 1HD, UK, is the former chairman
of the UK advisory committee on novel foods and processes, and former vice -
chancellor of the University of East Anglia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Botanical Garden, University of Bern
CH - 3013 Bern, Switzerland
Tel. +41 31 631 49 37
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