Don’t destroy research

Lots of great coverage for scientists at Rothamsted Research, who have appealed to anti-GM crop protesters who have threatened to trash a trial plot of GM wheat on May 27. Sense About Science have also organised an online petition, which at the time of writing has already been signed by 1,319 people (I’m one of them).

It’s a story that illustrates a couple of important themes that are explored in The Geek Manifesto — which is now only a week away. It’s out on May 10.

First of all, the sort of proactive, pre-emptive campaigning that these scientists have engaged in here is something that I don’t think would have happened even a few years ago. On previous occasions when GM trials have been trashed, scientists have all too often frozen in the headlights. They’ve allowed their opponents to make all the PR running, with photo-op “decontaminations” that not only destroy years of work, but contribute to a misleading media narrative of public-spirited protesters eliminating an environmental threat.

Not this time. Rothamsted has effectively got its retailiation in first. Instead of keeping quiet for fear of antagonising protesters who were pretty antagonistic in the first place, these scientists went out to brief the media and build pressure of their own. There’s now pressure on the protesters to engage in the dialogue that the researchers want. And there will also be pressure on the police to protect the trial.

Perhaps most importantly, the media activity has led even newspapers not normally sympathetic to GM (such as the Daily Mail) to explain the purpose of the research, and the reasons why fears that this trial could cross-pollinate nearby conventional crops are unfounded. As Ian Sample explains in the Guardian:

“The campaigners fear genes from the GM wheat will escape and contaminate conventional wheat. Wheat self-pollinates, so it cannot cross with other plants. To prevent stray pollen the Rothamsted scientists have surrounded the trial plots with 10 metres of barley and three metres of conventional wheat.

“No cereals or grasses are grown within 20 metres of the border. Wheat pollen is heavy and travels at most 12 metres.”

They’ve also successfully juxtaposed their own reasonable willingness to discuss the science they’re pursuing, with their detractors’ threat to destroy it if they do not cave in to their demands. If these crops are trashed, it would be a terrible blow to research on which scientists with the best of intentions have invested many years. But it would now be much more of a PR own-goal for the anti-GM movement than would otherwise have been the case.

This is the sort of campaign which scientists, and people who care about science, need to take part in to stand up for research that is both lawful and socially useful. Speaking up is nearly always a better tactic than keeping quiet and hoping things will blow over. It gives us the opportunity to frame these issues our way, rather than allowing our opponents an empty deck.

Another issue that’s interesting here is the very tactic of the protesters: to campaign to ban, and even threaten to destroy, research that they don’t like. It’s a theme that runs through a lot of activism against GM crops, and it makes a circular argument that suggests an opposition based on dogma rather than evidence.

Opponents of GM foods often like to claim that their effects on human health and the environment have been insufficiently tested. Then, when scientists like this group at Rothamsted actually embark on field trials that might answer questions about these effects, the very same opponents oppose the very idea that these trials should take place.

It’s almost as if they are afraid of what the research might actually reveal. As the Rothamsted researchers put it in their open letter to protesters:

“What you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain.”

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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2 Responses to Don’t destroy research

  1. Pingback: The Geek Manifesto on GM crops | The Geek Manifesto

  2. Pingback: Society for Neuroscience encourages scientists to speak up for animal research | Speaking of Research

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