One result of the recent wave of anti-GMO protests seems to be an outpouring of debate over whether the green movement is “anti-science”. The latest to cross my laptop screen was a blogpost from Adam Ramsey, arguing the Green Party are actually more pro-science than their competitors; they just need to be better at expressing this. Ramsey puts his position neatly:
I joined the Green Party in 2001 because I had been weaned on science. As a child, it was terrifying to read reports of the amassing evidence of dangerous climate change, resource depletion, planetary destruction.
It’s an experience many of us born in the 1980s can identify with. Moreover, the role of science in inspiring commitment to green politics is something which has run through movement since the publication of Silent Spring fifty years ago (and before). He goes on to point out that it’s not scientific work that is the target of anti GMO activists, just that particular application of it. I was enjoying the piece until I got to the end where he joked “Anyone up for occupying BIS in support of the Haldane Principle?”
I rolled my eyes and left a slightly grumpy comment stressing the Haldane Principle is a bit of a myth and inviting greens to aim to be cleverer on research policy. I was maybe being a bit unfair though. In fact, arguably, it’s a clever line for Ramsey to conclude with.
The Haldane principle is, loosely (and it is normally used very loosely…) about academic freedom. It’s used to express the idea that academics should decide what to spend at least a chunk of research funds on, without interference from political, cultural or economic pressures. This is relevant because the bulk of Ramsey’s post – as with much of the anti-GMO discussion – is a concern that science is being used to serve economic interests he thinks are dangerous. I can see how the Green Party, especially the redder ends of it, might worry about corporate interests narrowing the choices for direction of science and, as a result, look to policy ideas which promise something more honest. I think it’s an overly Romantic view, but I can see why it is tempting, especially considering BIS’ oh-so-subtle decor (pictured, scroll down for more).
As many keep pointing out, the target of the latest wave of anti-GMO protests, Rothamsted Research, is publicly funded. It’s on the top line of Sense About Science’s page on the researchers’ appeal. And so it should be. It’s an important point. Go, read the corporate information bit on the Rothamsted website. But don’t do so naively. Government funded researchers are routinely encouraged to do work which will spin off to commercial profit. Such encouragement is complex and negotiated at many different points along the research-building process. It varies depending on subject area and research centre, and over time. It’s not necessarily, in itself, a bad thing either. But it’s there. Science policy wonks sometimes talk about the emergence of “Mode 2“, context-driven, research in the latter half of the 20th century, or a “triple helix” where the interests of state, industry and academia are complexly interconnected. We have a strong history in the UK of providing funds for work which does not have obvious ends – see Rebekah Higgitt for an introduction to the history of this – but that doesn’t mean interests aren’t there and it certainly doesn’t mean Rothamstead is “pure” research. I don’t want to paint a picture of government funded GM research as a secret front for biotech industry (though this blogpost in an entertaining read), but imagining the BBSRC are magically pure is just as naive as assuming geneticists are evil monsters. Publicly funded research doesn’t exist in a political vacuum any more than a field of wheat exists in an environmental one.
All research is directed in some way. Scientists and their administrators make decisions around their work all the time, for social, cultural, ideological, political, personal, bureaucratic and historical reasons as well as economic ones. Sometimes the reasons are good, sometimes they are bad, often its debatable. The question is who gets to see and be involved in these debates. I think researchers should have a big role, but I also think the public could be involved more (a post last month on this). The Green Party are worried about the direction of scientific research, they should be pushing for meaningful public engagment (this happens already, but there could be more). Keep science public by involving the public. Extend and open up peer review, don’t hide behind it.