Plant rage may uproot experts

October 20, 2000

One in four senior scientists involved with genetically modified plants has considered quitting the United Kingdom because of perceived national feeling against the technology, according to a THES survey.

The poll of 124 plant scientists from 31 universities and research institutes showed that many felt the GM debate had contributed to national hostility to science in general, while 40 reported that the campaign led by environmental groups, consumer organisations and sections of the media had influenced their research plans.

Seventy-three per cent of the scientists either used or expected to use GM plants as part of their research.

The remaining per cent, who did not expect to work with the technology, believed the debate had prompted better dialogue between scientists and the public and had not made a career in plant sciences less attractive. A majority of both groups agreed it had worsened the national attitude to science.

One respondent said: "I receive greater hostility from people when I tell them that I work in plant science than I did while working for a defence company."

Twenty-four scientists said the situation was so bad that they were looking abroad to continue their research. "I especially felt like that on the day that the Melchett/Greenpeace verdict was announced," said one GM plant scientist, referring to September's acquittal of a group of Greenpeace protesters who had destroyed a GM field trial. He added: "Any go-ahead young scientist would be mad not to consider such a move."

The anti-GM climate made 38 per cent of scientists who use the technology more likely to advise a young plant scientist to leave the country, although others said they recommended this course principally to take advantage of better salaries and resources and to broaden their horizons.

Some said the anti-GM campaign had influenced their work in a variety of ways, including prompting them to be more thoughtful about the implications of a particular line of inquiry.

Others complained it had placed constraints on the range of their experiments, led to projects being suspended, to commercial organisations cutting funding and to farmers refusing to cooperate with trials, fearing attacks on their fields. One scientist said: "I have not had a GM grant accepted since the debacle started."

There was widespread feeling that media reporting and poor public understanding of science were in part to blame.

The role of the government was also criticised. Just nine scientists believed its response had improved matters. Others said scientists were responsible for the situation. "We certainly need better dialogue. Scientists are unintentionally arrogant when it comes to justifying their work," said one respondent.

Improving this dialogue was vital if an exodus of scientists was to be avoided, warned Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science. "It is worrying that two-thirds of those who use GM think this hasn't prompted a useful debate," he said. "We cannot fly in the face of public opinion and the only way to get anywhere is for scientists and the public to get involved in more dialogue."

Alan Malcolm, chief executive of the Institute of Biology, which represents British biologists, was optimistic. He said that the level of the debate was improving and he felt comforted that three-quarters of GM plant scientists said they would not move abroad.

Mr Malcolm felt the most significant aspect of the survey was the scientists' rejection of government policy. "It is a terrible indictment of the way the government has handled this," he said.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said the Office of Science and Technology was conducting a review of its own activities in science communication.

"The public's understanding of science is an important area that requires further action and not just by government, but by the science community as a whole," he said.

Charlie Kronick, head of Greenpeace's GM campaign, said his organisation had campaigned for nine years against GM technology and that it was wrong to frame the debate in terms of blaming the anti-GM lobby.

He described the questions set by The THES as "leading", adding: "It was not the campaign that created this conflict, it was inherent in the technology itself and the attitude of its advocates."

But Nigel Halford, a committee member of the industry-funded CropGen organisation, said the campaign had already helped persuade some firms such as DuPont to cancel UK investment plans, including a research centre that had been earmarked for Cambridge.

He said: "An increasing number of high-profile people are going abroad and they will not necessarily come back."

Research, pages 22-23

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