Don't run from the green bullies

July 16, 2004

If the Government is serious about helping science, it must stand up for it in public, argues Derek Burke

It's splendid that Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is to raise funding for science over ten years, but that is not enough. The Government must stand up for science.

Single-issue green lobby groups, for example, have campaigned so effectively against the use of genetically modified crop technology for which, despite outstanding basic plant science research in the UK and the best efforts of many scientists, there is no market here. Syngenta, the last company to use GM technology in the UK, has just moved to the US.

There is a gap between commitment to science and the ability to develop it that the Government and scientists need to address.

The Government should start by creating a level playing field for policy decisions. For example, the Science Minister was prevented from any dealing with the GM debate because of a distant link with a company, but a former Environment Minister, well known for close links with the green movement, was able to rubbish GM food and crops continuously, inside and outside Government. The Government could also have acted more vigorously in protecting GM crop field trials to stop policy decisions being driven by vandalism.

In trying to open the GM debate to all stakeholders, it has drawn in individuals opposed to GM. But how can a board member of Greenpeace UK be an impartial member of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission when he has a non-negotiable anti-GM position? As that committee works by consensus, he in effect has a veto. The Government must find a better way to make such decisions.

Scientists must accept that we have lost the current battle over GM crops.

Opposition will continue until a GM crop is developed that offers obvious advantages to the consumer. By then, UK research in this field will have vanished, and the intellectual property will belong to the US. Moreover, since the single-issue groups have been so successful, they will continue to campaign against any technological development that takes their fancy.

But, having lost this battle, we cannot relax; there are more to come. We must build up defences against attacks on all research-based technologies, developing defence strategies for likely targets. But we must also carry the public with us, for our assurances about safety and efficacy no longer suffice. We need to engage politicians and senior ministers in dialogue because they make the final decisions.

All this means a sustained effort by the scientific community. Time, resources and strong leadership will be needed. The president of the Royal Society has spoken out publicly, but we need a more powerful voice that represents the whole of British science. The Royal Society, the Royal Society of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences are all in a position to give a lead, but they must work together, draw in the professional societies and individual scientists and unite them in a sustained effort to avoid losing the next battle, be it over nanotechnology, animal testing or some other issue.

Finally, we must consider the societal issues that are involved in the science pressure group dynamic. Science works through "deliberative democracy", which involves open discussion and anonymous peer review, and all claims are provisional until someone can repeat them; scientists can speak only in their area of competence.

In contrast, single-issue pressure groups will pronounce on any issue whether they are expert or not. They make generalisations, exaggerate scares and repeatedly peddle discounted work. Why should they dictate policy? Why aren't they accountable for their misstatements, exaggerations and plain untruths when the scientific community is completely accountable?

It's time to start adding up the costs to society of these campaigns. The UK has lost the benefits of plant biotechnology largely because of vandalism of field experiments and campaigns by the green lobby groups and some newspapers. This is a real setback to the UK's drive to use science for the common good.

Derek Burke is a former vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia.

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