A tale of two trials

This story is, I think, an interesting example of Responsible Research and Innovation in action. It is a story of an institute and its researchers learning from controversy and from their own experiments in public dialogue. 

In the summer of 2012, a group of polite protesters assembled at Rothamsted Research, north of London, for what turned out to be an extremely polite protest. Earlier that year, a group had threatened to destroy a young crop of experimental wheat, genetically modified with the aim of repelling aphids. Rothamsted had, to their credit, seen the planting of this crop not as an experiment to be hidden from public view (even though they are legally bound to reveal its location and timing), but rather an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the pros and cons of genetic modification as a tool to help improve food security.

Rothamsted were keen to begin a formal public dialogue process focussed on the trial. But, as I and others argued at the time, to do so would have been disingenuous given that there was, understandably, no intention of changing direction or pulling up the crop. Instead, Rothamsted, in conversation with Sciencewise, sensibly chose a strategic, forward-looking dialogue exercise centred on the building of some principles for engagement with industry (a key condensation point for public concerns about GM crops). The exercise and its report informed a new approach, giving the institution and its researchers new confidence in public discussions about contentious agricultural research.

At the same time, Rothamsted found a new use for their high-security test field (the original GM wheat trial cost less than a million pounds, but security around the experiment cost more than two million). In the Spring of 2014, a crop of Camelina that had been modified to produce Omega-3 fatty acids for nutritional purposes, was planted. As with the GM wheat trial two summers earlier, approval had been granted by the UK’s Department for Food and Environmental Affairs, but this time the institute had decided to go public before the crop was in the ground. Rothamsted sent out a public consultation and invited various stakeholders, including local organic farmers and beekeepers, along to meetings the moment the application to run the trial was made. A concern from the beekeepers about the possible spread of pollen meant that Rothamsted went beyond the demands of regulators to put a net over the crop during its pollination.

This trial itself took place in the glare of public scrutiny. The BBC filmed the sowing, the flowering and the harvesting of the plant. This time around, however, there was relatively little antagonism. In summer this year, Rothamsted published the results of the wheat trial. As with many experiments, the results were negative. The crop didn’t repel its pests as hoped. Unusually for a negative result, the paper received huge coverage and allowed Rothamsted to communicate the message that not only were they doing genuine frontier research, but also that they were doing so in public, in the open.

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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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