Why the public should listen to scientists

April 7, 2000

The Royal Society - unaccountable elitism or democratic expertise? Harry Kroto defends the RS.

The article by Tom Wakeford (Soapbox, THES, March 24) bound up some important questions. It talked about genetic modification and the role played by scientists, in particular the scientists' academy, the Royal Society, in debating GM technology and other controversial scientific issues.

Wakeford's article implied that the society is a self-censoring and unaccountable elite, eager to promote GM technology despite the public's reservations. I would argue that, in fact, the society supports wide-ranging activities that are aimed at increasing public understanding rather than pushing one particular line.

Academies such as the Royal Society are often the first port of call for governments seeking advice on scientific matters and are key conduits for the funding of scientific research. It would be difficult to create an alternative to the Royal Society.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that GM experimentation is not intrinsically new. For centuries, we have cross-bred plants and animals - interfering with genetics for the benefit of society. Of course, the new powerful GM technology is a quantum leap forward in specificity, and proponents are already dreaming of the benefits that could accrue. Some of the research under way, for instance the development of wheat that would not need nitrogen-based fertilisers, could save perhaps 10 per cent of the world's fossil fuel reserves.

Against such exciting, humanitarian and eco-positive dreams are deep public concerns over our ability to control the technology and limit the transfer of non-beneficial characteristics to other plants - archetypal Brave New World dangers. The Royal Society has a crucial role to play in this debate, partly through its Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

As a pertinent example of how effectively the Royal Society is helping to explain such controversial scientific issues to the public. I point to the fact that Copus money was crucial in establishing a venture I am involved in - the Vega Science Trust, which creates television programmes for BBC2's Learning Zone. Vega recorded a pilot discussion programme at the Royal Society's Kohn Centre a year ago titled GM Foods - Safe? All but one of the panel members were scientists. The programme was made for BBC2 but, for reasons never fully clarified, it was never broadcast. The closest the mainstream terrestrial channels came to screening a similar programme on GM technology was a Channel 4 debate broadcast after midnight in late March.

It is interesting to compare the Vega and Channel 4 programmes. I concluded that the scientific community's programme was a far superior discussion of the issues. The panel members of the Channel 4 programme were chosen according to the flawed recipe that the panel should be politically correct. This ensured that most of the participants, particularly the chairman, were unable to make any useful scientific contribution. One of the participants, a Greenpeace spokesman, was forced to admit to ignorance about the science of GM technology. So why trust the judgement of such a person on such a complex issue? The debate was chaired by Jon Snow, who claimed no GM expertise; participants included: Mae Wan Ho (a leading GM antagonist), Charlie Kronick for Greenpeace, a Christian Aid representative, who also appeared to possess no GM knowledge, C. S. Prakash (a GM researcher), Richard North (a journalist with no GM expertise), and Stephen Smith (a Novartis spokesman).

This line-up ensured that there was no serious scientific discussion, and any sort of scientifically responsible consensus was impossible. Perhaps the emotionally charged confrontation that occurred was what was wanted.

By contrast, Colin Blakemore chaired the Vega production and the discussants were: Mike Bevan (a leading geneticist), David Ho (an American geneticist), Steve Jones (one of our leading figures in the public understanding of science), Angela Ryan (genetics researcher and prominent GM antagonist) and Janet Radcliffe-Richards (science philosopher). Here are a few key extracted comments: Bevan: "GM itself is not inherently dangerous, it is merely an extension of plant-breeding practices, where we use single genes instead of a large number of genes."

Ho: "We have a very powerful technique in our hands, we do not have enough information, so we need to carry out more research."

Ryan: "I think the government has done the right thing by stopping the commercial plantings of these crops."

The discussion was educational. It came close to a well-reasoned assessment of the present state of understanding of GM crops. I would like to point out that Tom Wakeford was chosen by Colin Blakemore and myself (both fellows of the Royal Society) to participate in this Vega debate, but unfortunately he was unavailable. The fact that the Royal Society supported such a debate shows that its activities are more democratic and all-pervasive than Wakeford argued. I would like to add my hope that wideband webcasting will democratise the broadcasting of science education.

Sir Harry Kroto, Nobel prizewinner for chemistry, is based at the University of Sussex. The Vega Science debate, GM Foods - Safe?, is available on VHS or www.vega.org.uk from next week.

* Do you think science television programmes are ill-informed?

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