Social scientists this week called on scientists to be frank about the limits to their knowledge in order to overcome the public mistrust of genetically modified food.
In a report recommending a radical rethink of the way GM food is controlled, the authors say that public concerns about cultural, ethical, political and scientific issues surrounding new technologies need to be taken much more seriously.
The report pulls together evidence on the GM food debate as part of the Pounds 15 million Global Environment Change Programme, the United Kingdom's largest ever social science research initiative, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The main conclusions are that:
The public is not stupid or ignorant about the risks involved, rather it has "a sophisticated grasp of the main issues"
Science cannot provide definitive answers about the safety of new technologies
A much more independent and participatory style of making decisions is needed if technologies such as GM are to be accepted.
Social scientists from the universities of Lancaster, Wales, Sussex and London collaborated on the report, which was coordinated by the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex.
It says government and industry should be more rigorous and open about decision-making strategies for GM food. It recommends the use of citizens' juries, focus groups and consensus conferences so that policy decisions take account of the public's concerns.
"Only then is the crucial ingredient of trust likely to come back into the public's view of managing science," it says.
Author Robin Grove-White, director of the centre for the study of environmental change at Lancaster University, said the regulatory system focused on a narrow range of scientific problems while the public's concerns were much broader. "Many involve very difficult scientific questions such as what will be the cumulative effects of lots of crops, who's in charge and whether we can trust who's in charge," he said.
In the light of deep uncertainties about the effects of new technologies, scientific advisers need to be frank about the limits to their knowledge.
"More scientific research and monitoring of the effects of GM crops and food are needed, but research may never resolve the uncertainties, so decisions on how much uncertainty to accept is essentially political judgement," said Professor Grove-White.
There are also legal implications, according to Chris Williams from London University's Institute of Education. "The justice system must evolve to meet the challenge of scientific uncertainty so that those responsible for new technologies with potential adverse impacts are held responsible for any harm they cause," he said. "They should be taking the risks and bearing the responsibility, not the public."
Public distrust of science was raised by Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, the UK drug company, in his SmithKline Beecham lecture, "From Art to Science: Vision and Reality in Healthcare", at the Judge Institute in Cambridge on Monday.
Each successive wave of innovation over the past 250 years had, he said, been greeted with public resistance, from the Luddites to today's pressure groups. A Mori survey for the Office of Science and Technology earlier this year had, however, shown that people do believe benefits will flow from modern technology, "but that can be changed when the media and pressure groups get at it".
Asked by Sir Alec Broers, Cambridge vice-chancellor, to comment on the different public reaction to GM crops in the United States and the United Kingdom, Sir Richard attributed it to the national newspaper industry in the UK and "those results" (Arpad Pushtai's).
The Politics of GM Food: Risk, Science and Public Trust is available from the ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme, Mantell Building, Sussex University BN1 9RF
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