Dialogue or direct action?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of a scientist using a pipette to measure out a liquid in a glass container, they are in a laboratory.

There is a very interesting initiative to create a dialogue under way in Britain. Anti-GM activists have indicated that at the end of May they are going to destroy approved field experiments of genetically modified wheat, performed by a very reputable research centre at Rothamsted. A group of the scientists involved in the research has responded with a letter questioning the activists’ intent. In doing so, they point out the paradox of stating on one hand that there is no evidence that the technology is safe, yet on the other blocking the very experiments that are designed to help understanding. The science group is seeking a conversation and at the same time asking for respect for well-controlled scientific experiments performed under strict, and democratically approved, guidelines. There are indications that some sort of a dialogue about new technologies will occur.

This is all reminiscent of the action earlier this year that disrupted a field trial of GM pine trees at one of New Zealand’s public research institutes, except that no opportunity for dialogue was offered then. But, more generally, it raises the important issue I alluded to in an earlier blog post with reference to Nina Federoff’s speech as president of AAAS in January. That is the spectre of growing anti-scientism that, in the US in particular, has become conflated with partisan political process.

We face many challenges ahead. We can roughly agree on what kind of New Zealand we want. We want a high standard of living and the best possible health for everyone, we want greater societal cohesion, and we want to achieve that prosperity while protecting our environment. The political discourse is primarily on what one needs to do to get there, and the relative weightings to give to each of these goals. For the simple reality is that there is no free lunch; everything we do involves trade-offs. Sustaining 40% more people on the planet, many of whom expect and have the right to expect far better standards of living, will involve more energy consumption, more food production, more resource use and more environmental impact — there is no way around that.

The role of science and technology in respect of this trade-off is to find ways to achieve economic prosperity and more efficient resource use while minimising environmental damage and meeting societal values and needs. The challenge for science is to explain what can be done and what are the various associated limits, benefits and risks, and then allow society to draw its own conclusions on the basis of this information.

But the problem we have is one of humanity’s own success. We develop new technologies ever more quickly, and they tend to be of greater complexity. Some we adopt rapidly, perhaps without understanding all the issues. For example, the very different virtual world is changing the very way we think, yet other technologies such as genetic modification generate truly visceral reactions even when there is no evidence of harm.

As the Rothamsted letter referred to above suggests, genetic modification is less about being new, and more about how it is done that is new. On one hand the debate is about technology, on the other it is about sets of values and beliefs. The question is whether such values and beliefs are likely to change as evidence for or against safety emerges? These issues are real, and technological advances must be accompanied by greater scientific literacy for all if participatory democracy is not to respond in a sceptical or even fearful fashion.

Ultimately the entire discussion at any level from global to local will be about the balance between resource conservation and resource exploitation (using these terms very broadly). A mature conversation will depend on a solid evidential base which only science can provide, and a weighting of paths and priorities that the whole community must own. Given the real challenges we face, a participatory democracy must insist on respectful and hopefully constructive dialogue that is not pre-empted by the actions of a few individuals.

But at the heart of that dialogue is a complex interaction that can be summed up in three words: “understanding of risk”. Risk means different things to different people – scientists may talk in mathematical probabilities; politicians think of risk in an electoral sense; the public generally sees risk through a lens that can be instinctive. This can lead to some misunderstandings — for example the precautionary principle is not a way to avoid action, rather it is a tool for managing risk in an active way that should be revised as the risks become better understood. Unless we get better at talking about risk and its management, the dialogue between science and technology and the public will fail.

The British scientists are asking for two things: first, a conversation with their critics, and second, the freedom to generate the sort of knowledge under controlled conditions that is needed for a debate about safety or otherwise. To request the right to do this and to release the results for public scrutiny is very much part of the democratic — and scientific — process. The challenge, however, will be to understand that there is one conversation about the science and the utility or otherwise of the technology, and another about values and priorities of the community with respect to any new technology. It is the conflation of these different conversations into one that is both confusing and disruptive to participatory decision making.

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