Dialogue on GM – Responding to Tracey Brown

The latest issue of People and Science, the British Science Association magazine, has a piece by Tracey Brown, and a response by me, on the place of ‘dialogue’ within and around the recent field trial of GM wheat.

Tracey Brown reflects on the Rothamsted protests.

Researchers working on genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted decided to respond publicly to a threat to destroy their research earlier this year. They faced a crunch point. Readers will know that activists organised an event to uproot their experimental plot in May.

Rothamsted’s approach
You may not know that Rothamsted’s efforts reached further back. Its head, Maurice Moloney, had written an open letter inviting the activists to talk when they announced their plans. Before that, environmental groups, farmers and local residents had been in discussions about the work. And before that, there had been a consultation as part of the trial’s approval by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which led to alterations in the trial design. And before that, Rothamsted had looked at the research proposals in the light of public opinions about commercial control, benefitting the environment and reducing chemicals, and felt it met these well.

Still facing threats, the researchers then pressed for discussion rather than destruction in every way they could – a letter, video appeal, publicity, discussions in the press and on TV. The public and commentators responded with support. Local people wrote to the protest group called Take the Flour Back. Thousands posted comments on a petition, expressing different views about GM but unanimous support for the research.

Lively tumble
Questions fired in all directions, about insects, the food chain, pollination, open source material, conventional breeding and pesticide sprays, and from all quarters: ‘artist’, ‘farm-hand’, ‘carer’, ‘astrophysics lecturer’, ‘air-traffic controller’. The researchers, helped by people from other institutes, got involved in discussing them. I and many others found ourselves relaying email enquiries, twitter debates, podcasts and other interrogations.

Months later, we are still working through correspondence. The researchers, BBSRC and others are too. It was a lively tumble of public discussion, set by what people wanted to talk about, often enthusiastically, sometimes crossly, and frequently at the weekend. The only polarisation was against vandalism and that’s fair enough.

Rigidity bad
But goodness would you look at the sniping from officials! ‘Why are you doing this?’ BIS officials asked. ‘You risk putting back GM discussion by 10 years’, Sciencewise told Rothamsted. (How far is that? everyone wondered.) Publicity risks building the demonstration. It risks building a counter-demonstration. It could backfire. If the threat of vandalism is public, it could put off international investors. Okay the researchers have handled it well, but keep them away from people on the day!
It was as though official support of public engagement is limited to activities fully planned, and approved by civil servants. Some academic consultancies don’t seem to like things that aren’t in the schedule either. You could be forgiven for thinking that science communication is seen as this potent tool that must be overseen by people whom government has accredited. No room for risky unplanned discussion here.

Messiness good
Discussion – the kind that actual people want to have – is unplanned, messy, contradictory, often inconvenient. But if our aim is to strengthen civil society and engage people then all of that comes too and it’s a sign of success. Yes it does mean taking risks and not being in control. But why would we want a petrified discussion, locked in interminable strategy meetings and so afraid of getting it wrong that nothing is learned or gained? It is daunting enough for researchers to go out and debate their research without also having to contemplate a gang of people on the sidelines waiting to write them up in a patronising case study.

Instead we should welcome the messiness and opportunity to learn what goes on when you risk actual public discussion, rather than the splendid isolation of accredited engagement that disappears up its own correctness.

Not so, argues Jack Stilgoe

I’m glad to be able to respond to Tracey Brown’s article in Brownie points, Engagement: actual or accredited?As with earlier discussions about GM crops, we can learn much from the Rothamsted experience. As a member of the Sciencewise steering group, I was recently asked to chair a review of dialogue exercises that have focussed on GM crops. Our conclusion was that, while we had learnt a lot from the various attempts to engage publics on questions of genetic modification, their collective problem was that they started with the technology rather than the problem of sustainably feeding a growing population. I was subsequently asked to advise Rothamsted on the desirability of a new dialogue exercise on GM.

The work that Sense About Science did with Rothamsted took the debate on GM to a different level, which was both good and bad. Rothamsted scientists were able to proactively talk about the research they were doing and, crucially, why they were doing it. They described how their interest in GM techniques differed from the interests of the big corporations who had come to define the first GM controversy in the 1990s and how advances in the science had brought new opportunities and new uncertainties. Tracey Brown is right that these debates are messy. They are messy because they are inextricably political. Science does not have all the answers.

This is why it was so depressing to see the debate turn, with Sense About Science’s encouragement, into a referendum on whether we are pro- or anti-science. The Twittersphere’s muscular rationalists were enlisted to reinforce the barricades. Stephen Fry labelled the anti-GM protest an “assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”. This sort of tribalism creates false enemies and interrupts attempts at constructive debate before they are allowed to begin.
Brown’s criticisms of what she calls ‘accredited engagement’ are baffling. Public dialogue exercises do not solve political problems but they can, alongside other forms of uninvited engagement, help shed light on them. I worry when the idea of dialogue is invoked without the open-mindedness that is needed to allay the suspicion that the outcome has already been decided in advance.

Another poorly thought-through dialogue on GM would indeed risk taking us back ten years. It would have been starting from the wrong place, with the wrong intentions. This is why Sciencewise advised against a dialogue exercise on the particular wheat trial and instead pointed Rothamsted to the possibility of engaging in a constructive debate about the future of our food supply.

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New lessons from the new Lorax

I was on a plane. That’s always my excuse for watching drivel. But I thought that, for research purposes, and given how often I talk about it, I should catch the remake of the Lorax. At the risk of turning a bit Žižek, here are my random thoughts on a highly-polished turd of a film that hardly deserves thought.Image

For those of us who loved the book, and the smaller number of us who enjoyed the original cartoon, with its loopy jazz-funk soundtrack, the film is an inevitable disappointment. Dr Seuss has been put into the title but much of him has been stripped from the film. The parable that makes up the book becomes a sub-plot of a boy-meets-girl that seems as though it has been scripted and storyboarded by the same computers that vomited up the graphics. The music is execrable and the animation must be exhausting even for the ADHDers. Nevertheless, some of the tweaks to the story tell us interesting things about where environmentalism and the politics of innovation have gone.

In the new film, the invention – the thneed – is the problem, not the means of production or the slippery slope of innovation. The invention springs fully formed from the air. Demand for it goes goes viral. Innovation and the eco-destruction that follows is near-instant.

Unlike in the book, the Onceler has a face. He starts off human – young, idealistic and full of good intentions. His relationship with the Lorax begins as friendly banter. It begins with just one tree, after all. The assumption is that both of their interests can be aligned. Rather than the Onceler consistently ignoring the Lorax, as in the book, there is a constant but ineffectual dialogue between them. There is an ever-present if feeble critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. One crappy song has the lines: “How bad can I be? I’m just building the economy. How bad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity”. The Barbaloots and Swammy Swans are bribed with marshmallows and acquiesce rather than kicking up a fuss. The tree’s fall takes on a ritual quality, with the film acknowledging the step onto a slippery slope.

The Onceler’s once-responsible intentions get trampled once his family get involved. The innovator becomes an innovation system. Processes overtake ethics and the last tree falls soon after the first. The Onceler retreats to his castle to wallow, but we still see his face. He is no cigar-smoking monster.

The redemptive turn occurs with a seed. But whereas with the book, we are left with the seed and its possibilities, the film gives us a story of remediation. The trees are brought back to life. The Onceler’s desolate dystopia that lies outside the hermetically-sealed utopia in which boy and girl live is made natural again with the new trees and the nasty capitalist who wants to privatise the air are vanquished. We are left with a moral (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”) attributed not to the Lorax or the apologetic Onceler, but to Dr Seuss himself.

So the film’s cautionary tale has been buried and its corners chopped off. Some things have been added that speak to responsible innovation – the speed with which innovation can take society and the environment by surprise, the mutation of good intentions into bad outcomes, the failings of a CSR approach to engagement. The story could have been updated in interesting ways. Given the globalisation of environmental concerns over the last 40 years – global climate change has superseded local air and river pollution, but is ignored in the film – I suspect that the new Lorax tells us that US parents aren’t willing to be preached to by a cartoon.


UPDATE: Not really an update. More of an additional thought. Since the Lorax’s publication, there remain people who speak for the trees, but the number of people who claim, in some way, to speak for the environment, has exploded. And they speak in increasingly scientific terms. The new film’s remediation story makes it sound so easy – think local, act local. Maybe somebody needs to rewrite the book for the anthropocene. Julia Donaldson, ahem.

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GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

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Why is PUS not open access?

Cobi Smith has got in touch to ask why PUS is not open access. I am on the editorial board for PUS, so I have some share of responsibility for decisions about such things. I thought she deserved a response. Indeed, she deserves a proper response, which I can’t give her. But it’s prompted some thoughts which I thought I would jot down at any rate.

Cobi has a really thoughtful blog post here about why PUS should be open access and why she took the decision to withdraw a paper from the journal. For those of us who have observed the open access debate for a while, it is heartening to see bottom-up agitation for open access in various ways. For me, the arguments for open access have always been obvious, and they have got stronger over time. (Here’s an old post). The arguments against open access have mostly been lazy, disingenuous or brazenly self-interested. The publishing industry have been allowed to drag their feet for too long.

When it comes to a particular journal, there are of course limits to what can be done. I can easily envisage an open access future, populated with new journals, journals that have adjusted and the corpses of those that couldn’t. But I’m not close enough to the action to see how the adjustment gets made. In the short term, there are risks of going hybrid – allowing some authors to pay for open access (with the benefits that accrue including wider readership and citation) while others can’t afford to. And the risk of turning completely open access is of losing an existing body of authors overnight. It would be easier, I think, to start a new journal.

If I have any sway (and I need to work out if indeed I do), I would say that the best thing for a regular journal to do is to clarify, emphasise and publicise an approach to green open access. Especially in the social sciences, where the speed of change is not so frenetic, I think it’s idiotic that all articles older than the usual embargo period (be that 6 months, a year or whatever) aren’t available and Googleable in institutional repositories or on personal web pages. The first thing I will do is check what the PUS policy is on this.

Cobi, you’re absolutely right. The social sciences need far more people like you to take a stand and make editors, journals and publishers think.

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Disorganised scepticism

I was on a radio 4 programme last night called ‘Reclaiming the sceptic’. It was pretty wide-ranging, as you would expect from something trying to track a theme such as ‘scepticism’ (we take ours with a c here). But I think the producer,Toby Murcott, held it together nicely and made a thoughtful contribution to a few debates that are often idiotic (I am thinking in particular of an appearance by James Delingpole on Radio 5 earlier in the day in which he subtracted from the sum of human knowledge by discussing sunspots and inclement weather).

My contribution to the piece was about what I called ‘disorganised scepticism’, to contrast with the Organised Scepticism described (or prescribed depending on who you believe) by Robert Merton. The programme shied away from climate issues, which is understandable given the tendency for all discussions involving climate change to become discussions about whether it is happening. But climate, and climategate in particular still provide the best possible example of disorganised scepticism in action and why it is important for scientists not to wish it away. This, by Jerry Ravetz and Mike Hulme, is great. 

Toby also wrote a piece for Research Fortnight on the topic, which is worth a look. 


(picture from http://www.openureyes.org.nz/blog/?q=node/2523)

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The Jubileefication of science policy

An interesting meeting yesterday at King’s College, London, new home of the BIOS group.  We were talking about the place of social science in emerging areas such as Synthetic Biology. I was asked to discuss a paper by a friend and collaborator, Matt Kearnes. His focus was on the ‘banal nationalism’ of science policies, how this reinforces a linear model of innovation and how this in turn impacts upon the efforts of social scientists, scientists and others, to question the direction in which things like Synthetic Biology are seen to be heading. Matt described how simplistic models of innovation emphasise supply over demand. The answer is almost always to pump in more cash and try to free up any bottlenecks that are detected further down the pipe. Spin-outs and patents become the defining qualities of innovation. The demand for innovation, whether from industry, from government (via procurement) or in the form of human needs (so called ‘Grand Challenges’) is typically given only a cursory glance. Matt makes the point that new materials, whether nano, syn bio or Graphene, exacerbate this linearity. The imagined wonder-material is assumed to create its own demand.

I largely buy Matt’s argument. My only suggestion was to acknowledge a more recent phenomenon, that of austerity. When there is no money left in the kitty, this removes the main lever in government’s impoverished science policy toolbox. My suggestion was that a lack of money could lead to an even worse performance of national identity in science policy. I mentioned that, at a time at which the UK’s sources of economic growth look pretty meagre, one thing we can always rely upon is tourism. I proposed, therefore, that we might be witnessing the ‘jubileefication’ of science policy, in which the UK’s scientific strengths and heritage are trumpeted and paraded without consideration of their current relevance. And as for the role of social science… well, we know that jubilees aren’t hugely democratic affairs. Perhaps the social scientists are expected to organise the street parties and roll out the bunting.

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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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