Interview on GM dialogue

I’ve been meaning to write about Genetically Modified foods for a while. Over the summer, I was involved in various things on GM, talking at the Science Communication Conference and the Dana Centre and chairing a group on GM dialogue. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll be chairing another discussion in Cambridge featuring the excellent Sir David Baulcombe, among others.

GM remains for me the most interesting contemporary story of governance, public engagement and innovation, but it is by no means complete, nor is the retelling of the story uncontested. While I work out what I really think, which may take some time, here’s an interview I did for Sciencewise…


Jack Stilgoe is a member of the Sciencewise-ERC Steering Group and Chair of the sub-group on genetic modification dialogue. Here, he discusses findings from the group’s report, ‘Talking about GM: Approaches to Public and Stakeholder Engagement’ and some of the questions it raises.

Can you give a quick bit of background on the report and the reasons for conducting it?

Partly in response to challenges around the FSA public dialogue about ‘Food: The use of genetic modification’, David Willetts suggested that we should review when, where and how governments should engage the public in dialogue. Sciencewise were tasked with this review. The work itself was undertaken by three Sciencewise Dialogue and Engagement Specialists, Andrew Acland, Suzannah Lansdell and Diane Warburton who looked back over all GM public dialogues going back as far as 1994. We, as a sub-group, discussed what these meant in the light of the current political context for GM crops. The report doesn’t make any big arguments for what should be done, but we do outline new opportunities, a few things to avoid and a number of steps that need to be taken before policymakers undertake something similar. GM is one of the hardest cases for public dialogue, with such an entrenched political debate. The message is: don’t enter into it lightly, and make sure that dialogue takes place in the light of this history.

There is a lot of focus in science dialogue about the importance of upstream engagement. This is no longer possible for GM which has quite a high level of public awareness and is as you say, highly politicised. How does that change the type of dialogue which is appropriate?

You’re right that it needs to be treated differently. This is also true for issues such as climate change or nuclear power, where there is already a degree of background knowledge and opinions within the public.

One of the key lessons from the history of GM is that you can’t just transpose the rather polite, structured, citizen’s jury type dialogue onto an already highly politicised issue and expect the same sorts of polite outcomes that you can when you talk about something upstream like nanotechnology. One of the recommendations of the report is that there is still an opportunity to have an upstream dialogue around the funding of agricultural research, especially with the Research Councils’ new Global Food Security programme. Here you could have a more constructive conversation that included but wasn’t constrained by the specifics of GM.

In terms of an appropriate strategy for GM moving forward, the answer isn’t to have more of the same dialogue, but rather to come up with a coherent strategic approach which is about political leadership, good policy making and joined up governance. Some form of public engagement should be a part of that, but I don’t think we should expect public engagement to be the only answer.

The report speaks of engagement with both stakeholders and the public. In the case of GM, what do you perceive to be the difference, and do we need a different approach for each?

Absolutely we need a different approach for each. When you are engaging upstream, everyone is a potential stakeholder; yet at the same time there are no obvious direct stakeholders because there isn’t anything yet for people to have a stake in, except researchers and the people who govern that research. In a downstream discussion like GM, there are clearly established stakeholders: farmers, regulators, politicians, interest groups, supermarkets, and animal feed companies who all need to find a way to thrash things out in a fairly old fashioned way. I think that confusing this activity with public engagement is unhelpful and puts far too large a burden on public engagement.

I think there’s another important set of lessons that need to be learnt which we didn’t cover in the report, particularly about how to engage with stakeholders. These more controversial issues involve direct action, lobbying and engagement in ‘uninvited spaces’ that government is not controlling and is less comfortable with. With an issue such as GM, working out mechanisms for this form of engagement may be more important than convening a formal public dialogue.

Your report identified that dealing with uncertainty and risk with the public is challenging. How could it have been dealt with differently?

When GM was the big news issue, it was characterised as being a debate about risk: ‘is this food safe?’ However, one of the headline findings of the report is that food safety is in fact a bit of a sideshow. More important are the huge technical and social uncertainties about the implications of the technology for the environment, for societies and economies. Those aren’t resolvable by science, they are often poorly defined and are contested. But it’s those issues we should be focusing on.

Where government is a sponsor of a public engagement process, the report highlights an interesting challenge.  Government has to try to balance the need to ensure stakeholder confidence in it as an independent convenor with the need for decision makers to participate in the process.  What’s your personal view on this?

I suppose I would emphasise the importance of the latter, the need for government to openly join the discussion. This is simply because I think the problem with public engagement in the past is that government has been outsourcing discussion rather than seeing itself as the other half of the dialogue. I think that should really be the proper role of government in dialogue, to say to the public, “this is an issue that we want to talk to you about because we’re thinking of taking these actions and we want your thoughts.”

With things like GM, if they want to have a public dialogue they have to be very clear about their own commitments in advance. That’s a different sort of discussion, and though it’s important it can also be difficult. In the case of nuclear power, the government were clear when opening a dialogue that they were proponents of nuclear power and some people therefore felt their dialogue disingenuous. Managing those interests can put a lot of pressure on a public dialogue exercise. In the end there’s a limit to how much government can be an apolitical broker of conversations; at some point it needs to throw itself into a conversation in the realisation that it is a political conversation.
This might be slightly different for more upstream engagement. Government can come to an issue like nanotechnology and say with an open conscience, “We don’t know what to do about this, help us navigate a way through it.” The convenor role is then much more natural.

The development of GM is one of those events in public policy which is held up as a moment of change for science dialogue. Do you see scientists, policy makers or others engaging with the public differently around issues such as synthetic biology or nanotech as a result of GM?

Certainly GM is always raised as an issue. Often you’ll hear scientists and innovators saying about an emerging technology, “we don’t want to do a GM.” I think GM was undoubtedly an important moment of realisation for a lot of people; scientists realised that their relationship with society and politics was perhaps more complicated than had previously been envisaged. But you can also say that GM was just one visible punctuation in a trend that’s been going back over a few years; BSE was also a real light bulb moment for many. The same is true with examples where things were done well such as in vitro fertilisation or stem cells, when a lot of scientists involved really learnt the value of doing public engagement properly.

If you had to pick two or three headline recommendations about how we should move forward, what would they be?

The first thing that needs to be established is democratic, adaptive governance. This must involve a new mode of engagement with the public, but public engagement can’t be a substitute for good governance, it should be a part of it. There’s still a lot to learn about how to do this effectively and Sciencewise has another project at the moment.

Secondly, it needs to be clear that dialogue about GM is a dialogue about uncertainty. Thirdly, that policy makers and government need to be the other half of the dialogue about GM. As I’ve said, they need to do this clearly indicating the purpose of the dialogue, the commitments they have already made and what decisions dialogue will inform.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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