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Upstream engagement and the governance of science: The shadow of the genetically modified crops experience in Europe

Tait, J

EMBO Reports, Science and Society Special Issue   10 S18-S22

August 2009

Synthetic biology represents a fusion of the pragmatic and the idealistic, which is motivated by the drive for a better understanding of biological processes, and the desire to deliver the social and commercial benefits that the science seems to promise (Tait, 2009). Most scientists working in universities and commercial companies are guided by a mixture of these motivations.

However, in the background, a shadow looms over many of the life sciences, pointing to a complex and possibly difficult future—the question of public acceptance of the science and technology. Echoing this tension, many European governments, including the European Union (EU) itself, are caught between a desire to promote innovation, and the political need to accommodate a wide range of public-interest groups with precautionary concerns about environmental and health issues.

The shadow over the life sciences is most substantive in the context of genetically modified (GM) crops—any discussion among scientists and policy-makers about future developments comes around, eventually, to the need to avoid a repetition of the European debate on GM crops and its outcome. Although this controversy was most virulent during the period from 1998 to 2002, it rapidly resurfaces in response to any positive or even neutral news item about GM crops.

The effect of this opposition to GM crops by public-interest groups should not be underestimated. Publications and reports that do not take an anti-GM perspective regularly come under attack. A recent explanatory review of a range of GM crop issues (Sense about Science, 2009) led to challenges related to the independence of the scientists who had contributed to it (Corbyn, 2009). The publication of a report showing that GM crop technology is attractive to some farmers (Lane et al, 2007a,b) also prompted challenges about the competence of the researchers (Corbyn, 2008), even though this work was subject to peer review by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

An example of continuing international opposition to the future involvement of GM technology in agriculture comes from a recent report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2008). Those who were involved in the production of this report were aware of the extent to which it became dominated by the views of anti-GM activists in a way that seriously affected the outcomes and the advice to governments (Anon, 2008a,b; Chataway et al, 2008).

These examples do not imply that support for GM crops should be above criticism; however, they do demonstrate a lack of tolerance for any alternative views and a refusal on the part of anti-GM activists to consider alternative options involving this technology. There is a vast amount of web-based anti-GM activity, much of which tends to be reported relatively uncritically in the media, compared with the more hostile reception and accusations of bias that greet more neutral or positive news items.