'This will be like no other debate'

March 21, 2003

Derek Burke, who fought anti-GM groups, counsels science to fight nanotechnology.

Scientists must organise, speak up and use pressure-group tactics to fight the opponents of nanotechnology.

A few weeks ago, I was astonished to hear Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth arguing against nanotechnology on Radio 4's Today programme.

Surely they were talking about biotechnology? But no. Nanotechnology, he said, was going to damage the environment, upset consumers and give more power to the multinationals, just like genetic modification. I looked a bit further into it - and the embryonic campaign bears an eerie resemblance to the way the campaign against genetic modification of crops and foods started about six years ago.

I have spent about half my time over the past six years speaking, writing, giving radio and television interviews about GM, and I am now involved in the government-sponsored "debate". So what lessons can you take from the anti-GM campaign that might be useful in this new battle? Let me share some of my hard-won experience.

• This will not be a scientific debate

You won't be looking for a mutually agreed solution, but rather reacting to a pressure group with a single message on which it will never compromise.

As soon as you've dealt with one objection, another will crop up. They will never admit that you are right.

• Organise yourselves now

In the debate that followed the claim that feeding GM potatoes to rats caused cancer, the scientific community was continually on the back foot.

Pressure groups released one news story after another, winning headlines about every three days. We scientists were then phoned for a reaction, and we were, inevitably, on the defensive. We were often asked to give interviews or to write for newspapers, but we were already desperately busy and wanted to get on with the job that we were being paid to do. Forget that.

• Form a rebuttal group

You need a group of people, in constant email contact, who are prepared to spend, say, 10 per cent of their week dealing with the issues that have just been raised. We have one now for GM, but it took us a long time to get that going.

• Don't delay

You will need to react within 48 hours. It is no good saying it will wait until the weekend. Nor is it any good asking a professional society to conduct a "proper review to allay the fears of the public". It will be too slow, too late, and it will not influence events. You have to learn to work as the pressure groups work.

• Prepare some good-news stories

You do not need splendid new scientific advances, but realistic, honest stories about how this new technology can benefit the public and, particularly, the consumer. Without such stories, you are lost, for it is very easy to persuade the public that science for its own sake is risky, even dangerous, and that we do not need it.

• Don't hype

We made that mistake about biotechnology in the early 1980s, and it did us great harm. Achievements were too slow in coming, cost more than originally estimated and delivered less in consumer benefits than we had promised. We were bullish, but if you overdo it, you will regret it. Some of this is driven by over-confidence, some by a desperate thirst for funds. Quick money can easily mislead inexperienced managers into spending too freely and uncritically, and credibility is quickly lost.

• Start thinking through the ethical issues

Scientists do not have the training, the skills or, frankly, the right to pronounce on these matters. Much has been done these past few years to rigorously address issues arising from GM foods, crops and from reproductive medicine.

• There are no simple answers

We all agree that not everything possible is always right, but how do we choose? You will need to work with social scientists - to learn how the public perceives risk - with philosophers and with theologians. It will be an education. You have to learn to think as others think.

None of this is good news for you personally. You will resent the loss of time. You will resent the way in which your honest, best efforts for society will be twisted. And you may even meet personal recrimination - I certainly have. But the consequence of the loss of this technology for society is the loss of the ability to create new wealth. It's my grandchildren that I'm concerned about. How will they earn their living in 20 years? The answer may lie partly in your hands.

Derek Burke was vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia from 1987 to 1995 and chairman of the government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes from 1989 to 1997.

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