Biologists accused of apathy

December 5, 2003

MPs attacked a research council this week for doing too little to fight a growing "anti-science culture", and claimed that it lacked passion in the controversial debate over genetic modification.

Members of the Commons' science and technology committee quizzed top-level representatives from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council on Monday.

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris asked why the BBSRC spent only 0.2 per cent of its budget on science communication when this was purported to be one of its key missions.

Conservative MP Robert Key suggested that the BBSRC should have taken more responsibility for the GM debate, querying why the issue was not mentioned in the council's annual reports or its ten-year vision for science.

After the meeting, Mr Key told The THES : "It is very disappointing that they showed neither anger nor passion at the state of the GM debate."

But BBSRC chief executive Julia Goodfellow said the council's communication budget did not reflect all of the work carried out by researchers it was funding.

She insisted that the BBSRC had consistently supported public discussion about GM, sponsoring a conference as early as 1994. She admitted that she was initially dubious about the government's "rather late" efforts to engage the public on GM, but now believed it had moved the debate forward.

The BBSRC told the committee that the biosciences were experiencing a period of unprecedented growth. According to figures announced during the meeting, the number of academics working in the field increased from 9,120 in 1999-2000 to 10,290 in 2001-02.

As a result, applications to the council for research project funding have risen steadily since 1997-98 and reached their highest level ever this year.

The council said that this would affect the success rate. Only 29 per cent of applications currently win funding.

Professor Goodfellow said: "Bioscience is a success story. We have been trying hard to maintain it."

The council confirmed that application numbers had been driven up by funding problems at the Medical Research Council. It said the number of medical research departments applying for BBSRC funding had risen by 126 per cent since 1998-99.

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