Thursday, 4 November 2010
The governance of science: The shadow of the genetically modified crops experience
A shadow looms over many of the life sciences: the question of public acceptance of the science and technology – most evident in the context of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Opposition to GM crops by public-interest groups cannot be underestimated: it has prompted debate about the competence of researchers, banned research trials and seriously affected the advice given to governments.
In 2000, when the decision was taken not to rule against 27 Greenpeace activists who destroyed GM crops because of their belief it was the right thing to do, The Independent newspaper called it ‘[…] a defeat for scientific truth’ (Anon, 2000).
There has been a lack of tolerance for any alternative views of GM crops and a refusal on the part of anti-GM activists to consider alternative options involving this technology. This cynicism has pervaded public beliefs through relatively uncritical media reporting of anti-GM activity, compared with the more hostile reception and accusations of bias that greet more neutral or positive news items.
There is no evidence of direct environmental damage or health risks from approved GM crops and considerable evidence of their benefits and attractiveness to some farmers. Nevertheless, many governments in Europe refuse to allow GM crops in their region.
The social science agenda, now bound by public engagement which can influence decisions about scientific research without balancing evidenced risks and benefits, may soon have no solid evidence base for making decisions about scientific developments (Collins, 2009). Decisions will vary depending on public-opinion shifts in response to the latest events, amplified or modulated by media campaigns.
We should develop ‘rules for engagement’ that set standards for the quality and breadth of evidence that is brought to discussions, and that encourage a willingness to listen to and accommodate, where possible, the views of others. We should also consider carefully the circumstances in which it might be necessary or valid to allow the values and interests of one group to restrict the freedom of choice of others.
Anon (2000) Lord Melchett’s victory will prove to be a defeat for scientific truth. The Independent, 21 September. http://www.independent.co.uk/
Collins H (2009) We cannot live by scepticism alone. Nature 458: 30–31
For more information, read Joyce Tait’s article, ‘Upstream engagement and the governance of science’, published by EMBO reports (2009) 10, S18-S22.