Posters currently outside BIS offices, London
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.
I really enjoyed this post – very well written and measured, especially given how passionate both sides of this discussion have been recently.
But aren’t the Greens captive to a certain vision of future that will always make them reluctant to be completely open about wanting public engagement? After all, most people seem to be mildly climate change-sceptics (by Green standards at least) who aren’t willing to do much more than tinker around the eco-margins in their own lifestyles, though they might be happy for the government to make longer term investments in alternative energy sources. But that would be because they’re worried about oil and coal running out rather than oil and coal killing us.
Of course, the Greens aren’t anti-science but they are certainly anti- an open-minded reading of the scientific evidence. They’ve already made up their minds and that’s presumed in their policies. I would not look to them as a force for a specifically ‘democratic’ science policy, though it is testimony to their PR that they give off that impression.
That’s not the view of either the Green Party of the NGOs which I see. That comes from a study of more than just their PR, though maybe you’ve done more systematic empirical sociological work than me on this…?
(have to say, you’re view on the Greens reads ever-so-slightly like you’re strawmmanning Steve… sorry)
What does ‘anti- an open-minded reading of the scientific evidence’ mean? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but this sets off the same alarm bells for me that are rung when I hear someone accusing scientists of being closed-minded because they won’t take the time to look closely at someone’s grand plans for an innovative perpetual motion machine…
It means we should be creative and diverse in our policy making. That doesn’t mean we have to listen to perpetual motion machine designs, but it does mean we have to listen. Why let a few fringe people stop us from being sceptical, from being democratic?
Your “alarm bells” sound like a “slippery slope” argument to me, and I just think that’s lazy policy making, if not a logical fallacy.
So are you agreeing with Steve Fuller that that’s what the Green Party is doing? That its take on the relevant science is the result of not reading the evidence in an open-minded fashion?
Yes, it’s always true in science that one ought to keep an open mind, but it’s also true that some scientific debates have already been settled to the point that for practical or policy-making purposes, the sensible thing to do is to suppose that what the overwhelming majority of scientists are telling you is true. For me, the questions of whether human-caused emissions are resulting in climate change, and whether this is likely to be a major problem in the future, fall into this category. There are still many who disagree – but as far as I can tell, few of them are climate scientists. This is why vague accusations of not taking an open-minded approach to the evidence make me a little twitchy in this context.
Of course, it is quite possible that Steve had something else in mind entirely in his dismissal of the Green Party’s scientific credibility, but it was made in such general terms that we can only guess about the specifics…
We might be at cross purposes here. In my experience “open minded” is a rather flexibly applied term and not especially helpful. I can see why people get twitchy. I think that’s sad though.
I wasn’t agreeing with Steve necessarily – I got the impression that he feels the Green Party read sci evidence in a rather closed mind (e.g. with respects to nuclear). I don’t think that’s always true. I also think everyone reads evidence in a context, in fact evidence should be read in a context (the trick is doing that well…).
I think there are several issues the Green Parties are trying to tackle, not always successfully. But I’ll lay out some of the more valid criticisms they have, in my view:
First there’s the issue of the precautionary principle. One of the major questions that doesn’t even get asked with GMOs is their effect on the environment. And they will have one. In the US we already see the GM canola plants “volunteering” as they like to say wherever the trucks that carry the seeds roll out of the factories. That is, they grow on their own by the roadsides.
That’s not terrible. But it shows that the GM plants we’re talking about replacing a rather large chunk of the food supply with can “escape” and we don’t know well what the effect might be. Then there’s the related issue of monoculture (and the fact that GM crops in many cases are genetically identical — that’s the point, after all). When someone says “there is no evidence there is a problem” part of the reason people react badly to that is a long record of that same line in cases where problems — bad ones — appeared. After all there was no evidence that thalidomide was a problem at the beginning. The problem was nobody asked the right questions. With GM crops, people are exited about the possibilities — I am — but I don’t see an effort on the part of industry especially to apply the precautionary principle in a meaningful way.
And it IS important to do. Because we live in a global civilization now, and any major cock-ups will have global effects. I draw a parallel with the potato varieties introduced to Ireland. In 1840 it probably looked like a miracle crop — it could be grown in Ireland well and provided loads of nutrients per acre (more than anything else). That didn’t turn out well, did it? But it isn’t 1840 anymore and now we can ask the kinds of questions the British and Irish authorities could not.
This touches on the issue of industry control and the associated problems of ownership. I don’t want to spend a long time on this, but the fact that much of the GMO research has been by industry hasn’t helped matters (see above point about brushing off concerns).
Yes, people have genetically modified animals and plants for thousands of years in one way or another, but in breeding there are some natural limits imposed on you. For instance, I can’t introduce genes from an oak tree into a corn plant that way. The palette, as it were, is limited. With that the potential problems are limited too.
Now, before you all jump on it, I think the destruction of research is quite wrong. But in many ways the folks doing this kind of research haven’t done themselves any favors. The issue brought up in the post about the interconnection of industry matters here — the fact is that the companies engaged int he research are there to make money and they will do what they must to that end, the rest of us be damned. They aren’t evil, that’s just the logic of capitalism. But the taint of that has now gotten bad enough that many less rational Greens see any research in the field as done in the service of (insert your favorite corporate bogeyman here).
Another issue is one that touches on the uses of science — and that is technical vs. social solutions. One thing the Greens haven’t articulated well at all is that to survive our society may have to make some changes and those have little to do with technology. That is, we might just have to give up getting mangoes from the tropics in London. We might just have to give up vacations in Corsica by plane. We might not get packaged food anymore. But the need for many of these things has little to do with technology and everything to do with culture. The decision to build cities based on auto travel was not a technological inevitability — and this is something that the original post touches on. Science and the research we choose to do doesn’t exist in a vacuum at all, as it points out. (After all, imagine what the power grid might look like if the $10 billion for a couple of nuclear plants was put to, I don’t know, an orbiting microwave power station).
Sorry to be so long about this.
In Europe the question of GMO impact on the environment is asked (you can argue about how independent and robust it is). Environmental impact and socio -economic impacts are assesses by the competent authorities in each member state and authorisation is given at EU level. The most adverse impacts of GMOs are likely to be as a result of associated management rather than being GM per se (although there is great variation in traits). The UK competent authority is Defra and the assessment board is ACRE. EFSA is the European competent authority.
Re finding. Grants are funded up to 80% by gov funded research councils usually (at least it was when I was last in lab 4 yrs ago). Researchers then have to find the remaining 20% from other sources and researchers are actively encouraged to find industry funds. I worry about political and industrial influences on direction of research. There are many examples of great discoveries made by accident. If there is a clear agenda at the start then this will shape / narrow outcomes. It’s important to always be aware of biases / influences. I think research funds without strings attached (blue skies) is good idea. Like the google employees who get 20% of their time to work in what they want. Curiosity driven research. But I guess if money from public purse then you need to be assessing the impact and value.
Thanks for interesting post.
Many of the points in this article are valid. It includes a photo of the personalised number plate of the director. Bad taste. http://www.spinwatch.org.uk/-articles-by-category-mainmenu-8/46-gm-industry/5505-science-one-whining-greenies-nil
If we have to be all black and white about it and it is a choice between a diverse food web including aphid busting ladybirds and the other choice of minty fresh monoculture i’d take biodiversity and ladybirds (there is some interesting work in how inter crop variation can prevent disease / pest outbreaks). There may be a middle ground and that mint wheat would reduce environmental impact compared to current commercial practices.
Current farming practices are certainly not biodiversity friendly. Plenty of evidence (bee a other pollinators, bird numbers, soil orgs all in decline for decades).
After 20 odd years the debate is still polarised – very much us and them. An honest debate where vested interests, clarity of funding streams and personal gain were clear for all to see would be a good start.
Having first encountered the Haldane Principle as a post-grad in the later ’60s (… via C.P. Snow – and I was quite excited about this at the time) could I pick you up a bit on Haldane, Alice? It may be (is) a myth in practice, but it’s still a very useful guiding line in some ways (e.g. http://hilaryburrage.com/2008/10/17/dius-science-and-society-consultation/).
We have to have guidelines for expectations even when we know beyond doubt that they are an ideal, not a reality – which we did already know back then, because of the work of E.P. Thompson and others.
I suppose much of the significance and impact of Haldane has been lost over the decades, but it’s nonetheless something which I think we should hang on to as a sort-of lode-star. Of course science leaps to the demands of business and governments in power; but the idea of disinterest does underpin scientific judgement…
… and, perversely, that notion of disinterest by scientists and, say, the civil service in parallel, is also what reminds us that in the real world, as you and others emphasise, we will always need to make value-laden choices.
The Greens are like everyone else in this respect. S/he who wins any given argument about the direction of science will be the person who makes the most compelling case.
A real, open dialogue between the eco- folk, mainstream scientists, business interests and those with the power to allocate funds would be a fascinating and worthwhile exercise for us all.
So who’s likely to blink first? We certainly need someone to get the open dialogue ball really rolling, as you also say. And I’d still see Haldane as a good place to start.
I think, if it’s easy and fun to poke holes in the green party, that for it to be useful one has to be scientific and poke similar holes in the others and a contol too. Some kind of graduated pokey stick that allows a reading of the lack of robustness would probably help.
The Economist this week is interesting on the subject of using an ‘evidence base’.
Elementary as one might think that idea is, apparently in the US it’s seen as actually undesirable when the issue is health care, which might be seen as a parallel concern with green issues?
See e.g. http://www.economist.com/node/21556928
And we’re (UK) not so good at applying evidence-based health care rationally either: http://www.economist.com/node/21556924
Way to go, folks…
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