Reflections on Rothamsted

So it appears that there was a protest. And a counter-protest. And lots of lots of police and lots and lots of journalists. The field trial didn’t get torn up, which was good for the particular research project, but not really the issue. The experiment itself, sociologically-speaking, was symbolic – a pivot with which to gauge the balance of sentiments in the GM debate. As a member of the Sciencewise board, I have been dragged into this discussion as Rothamsted consider how to strategically engage with the public in the future. I have made the case to them that doing so means looking forwards rather than fixating on the politics of this trial. For all the talk of ‘dialogue’ and ‘debate’ around this trial, it is clear that the progress or otherwise of this experiment was not on the table. No reason why it should have been. The trial had been agreed by ACRE, a sensible body with broad expertise, appointed legitimately to represent the public interest. Put the trial to one side and we can see that there are plenty of important decisions to discuss about the future of agriculture and that these can usefully be opened up to deliberative discussion. Observing the sabre-rattling that has taken place in the last week or so, I have been interested in whether this helps or hinders that debate. It has certainly been interesting to observe the emergence of the muscular rationalists in response to the anti-GM gang. They will be congratulating themselves this morning on a moral victory, although it would have been all the sweeter had they not needed quite so much Council help and police muscle. But my worry is that, in winning this battle, they make future battles more likely and risk prolonging the war. (‘They’, incidentally, might be Jon Agar’s Geekocratic Tendency).

The Rothamsted scientists made an interesting move in proactively setting the agenda on the trial. The early involvement of Sense about Science rapidly turned this into a fight between pro- and anti-science. I’ve written before about how dumb this is. But if nothing else, Manichean rhetoric mobilises certain groups. Pretending that an issue is about more than it is expands the constituencies on either side (to include, in this case Stephen Fry, whose volley (“The latest assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”) was as ludicrous as anyone’s). The stretching of the terms of debate confuses things, but this confusion has given me grounds for optimism. We’ve had greens arguing with each other about their positions on agriculture, energy, growth and ‘naturalness’. And we’ve seen publicly-funded scientists distance themselves from the oligopolistic, industrial use of GM that has tainted their work for more than a decade. If we follow the idea that controversies are a form of ‘informal technology assessment’, we can pick out an interesting line of discussion – what sort of GM for what sort of agriculture? – between the extremes.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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One Response to Reflections on Rothamsted

  1. Interesting article, thank you. I’ve been struck by the fact that Rothamsted have, throughout all of this, been at pains to openly welcome debate with anti-GM protesters and ensure that they are seen as being very reasonable. Which, in many ways, is good. But, I wondered why they didn’t undertake any form of upstream discussion to allay concerns *before* they planted the crop. And, I think there can be an added risk of antagonising a group by setting your position as being one of extreme reasonableness. This can imply they are ‘only’ being unreasonable and therefore undermine them, which is likely to make them more defensive?

    Let’s hope this does lead to productive dialogue in the future that starts to answer some questions you highlight.

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