Scientists await PM answer on GM

November 7, 2003

The prime minister was expected to respond this week to a letter from 114 UK scientists complaining about the increasing hostility to, and lack of government support for, work on genetic modification.

The letter will be followed next week by a parliamentary question and letter to Tony Blair from chair of the science and technology select committee Ian Gibson.

The group was led by Derek Burke, former vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and former chair of the government's GM advisory committee.

The scientists wrote directly to Downing Street last week in protest at the way the results of the farm-scale evaluations of GM crops were treated.

They write: "The government's many initiatives in this prolonged deliberation on GM crops have been structured in a way that makes it impossible to clarify the nature of the scientific work or its opportunities. Genetic engineering of plants has been reduced to a matter of consumer preference."

Signatory Chris Leaver, professor of plant sciences at Oxford University and an advocate of GM crops as a means of helping poorer countries produce food, this week urged scientists to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the letter. He said they should use the media to highlight all aspects of GM and its potential use. Of concern is the way that scientific evidence is used in the debate. He also wanted scientists to discuss how science and politics interact.

He added: "The letter seems to have succeeded in shaking the creeping view - especially in government - that 'we probably have to let the campaigners have this one' and hope that things might change in years to come.

"Also, it has given the government something to respond to other than its more regular critics in this debate, creating some unease about the state of the debate and whether we have the full picture."

The letter was coordinated by Sense About Science, an organisation set up last year by a group of scientists who felt that evidence was being ignored in an increasing number of public debates on scientific matters - from the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the use of animals in research.

Mr Blair had not responded by the time The THES went to print. But a spokesperson for Downing Street said: "This government takes science very seriously. We recognise that biotechnology is a vital part of this country's industry and that research and development is critical to health and wealth in the UK."



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