4 March 2003
GM SCIENCE REVIEW PUBLIC MEETINGS SLAMMED
Concerns about the "public debate" and particularly the science strand continue. Below are 4 sets of comments on the GM science review public meetings. Here are some excerpts:
"the term 'scientific' was used systematically to suppress or ignore inconvenient issues. This bias operated at many levels... Fragmentation of issues... Selective citation or even misrepresentation of scientific findings... Omission of research... Biased chairing: Censorship of comments..." - Dr Les Levidow (item 2c)
"I came away thinking it was little better than a propaganda exercise for GM technology... It was, quite frankly, a disgrace to call this a discussion about GMOs. The speaker line-up and format combined to make it a very one-sided event which has not significantly advanced the debate." - Dr. Doug Parr (item 2b)
"A more intelligent and evidence-based approach to public engagement is possible - but it needs one thing that is often lacking in the scientific community and that is humility" - Dr. Gary Kass (item 1)
"this was not the only public meeting on the science issues that has been lacking in an appropriate platform for other views... the public meeting on GM food safety as part of the science review on 23rd Jan... largely consisted of scientists enmeshed in the approvals process talking to each other" - Dr. Doug Parr (item 2a)
1. Comments of Dr. Gary Kass on the correspondence. Dr. Kass is on the public debate steering board and is an Adviser to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology but, obviously, the views he expresses here should not be taken as (necessarily) representing the views of the board as a whole nor those of his employer.
2.a) Mail from Dr. Doug Parr, Chief Scientific Adviser to Greenpeace UK to Prof. Malcolm Grant, Chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), who are overseeing the public debate
b) copy of mail from Doug Parr to Dr Josephine Craig of the Royal Society
c) copy of mail from Dr Les Levidow of the Centre for Technology Strategy at the Open University.
I was at neither meeting, but it is well-established in the lore of public involvement that classical public meetings with speakers, a chair and Q&A from the floor is probably THE worst form of public engagement (bar only a few things, like full-blown public rioting, or the storming of the Bastille!).
It is essential that the GM public debate process is as different as possible to these types of exercise. At the same time, the steering board needs to draw the others towards it, learning the lessons of the past, drawing on the Kelly and CW research and on emerging good practice in public dialogue. If there is any opportunity (can we engineer one?) where the steering board can sit down with the RS, Science Museum, Science Review Panel, Strategy Unit and the FSA to talk about melding the strands of public debate more tightly, I would welcome a chance to participate.
A more intelligent and evidence-based approach to public engagement is possible - but it needs one thing that is often lacking in the scientific community and that is humility: the ability and willingness to be convinced by others' arguments and to change one's stance accordingly. Science, through the critical examination of contested knowledge espouses such humility; scientists, however, as people, rarely do! Gary
2. Comments on Royal Society meeting
a)Comments of Dr Doug Parr to Malcolm Grant of AEBC
b)Copy of comments of Doug Parr to Royal Society
c)Copy of Les Levidow's comments
From: Doug Parr
Sent: Monday, March 03, 2003 3:21 PM
To: Malcolm Grant (E-mail)
Subject: GM science review public meetings
I”šm writing to you again because I”šve become further concerned about certain organisational roles and behaviour in the GM debate. Again this is around public involvement, specifically the Royal Society public meeting on 11 February and the GM food safety meeting at the Science Museum on 23 Jan. I've delayed sending you this because I wanted to give you my concerns about the Food Standards Agency first and let that settle a little.
I attach a letter sent on 12 Feb to them about this meeting. I also attach notes sent from Les Levidow of Open University. I hope these are self-explanatory. Les particularly makes the point (which I'd endorse) that not all points of view seemed to be heard sympathetically and points not raised in scientific terminology had a hard time. An attempt was made to raise these issues at the scientific review panel on 18 February and Prof King stated that it was just a matter for the Royal Society.
This is a bizarre arrangement. It is entirely inappropriate for parts of the GM debate to be parcelling out 'public' bits of the official review process to biased organisations to do as they see fit, and then considering that mandated by the process, and as some form of public consultation. Nor does it help a public engagement process when certain parts of it are closed out (in all but name) to mambers of the public.
FYI In practice this was not the only public meeting on the science issues that has been lacking in an appropriate platform for other views. I attended the public meeting on GM food safety as part of the science review on 23rd Jan and again found that one could spend a couple of hours without getting answers to key questions because it largely consisted of scientists enmeshed in the approvals process talking to each other. The QnA format for the remainder of the session made it difficult to conduct a dialogue, and I thought that the food safety points which related to real policy issues (like labelling) were treated in a rather dismissive manner.
Subject: GMO Meeting yesterday
Date: Wed, 12 Feb 2003 11:24:50 -0000
As you”šll know I attended yesterday”šs meeting on the environmental impact of GMOs. I need to write to say how disappointed I was in the event and how little it has helped. Please feel free to copy this e-mail to relevant people in the Royal Society - I don”št have many e-mails there. I came away thinking it was little better than a propaganda exercise for GM technology. I”šm afraid I walked out before the end as it was becoming increasingly pointless. Specific issues:
1.The speaker line-up was almost exclusively pro-GMOs. The exception to that would be speakers in the morning but their brief was to cover the impacts of conventional agriculture not concerns on GMO introduction. The concerns these speakers alluded to were not substantively dealt with in any of the subsequent talks
2.Following that initial session all the speakers were clearly advocating the technology. This had implications for the effectiveness of the format of the day (see below). It”šs not as if there are not people and arguments that can be advanced. Mark Avery of the RSPB did precisely that late in the day. So could English Nature have raised these, whose concerns and those of the RSPB contain similarities. I could have done it given sufficient notice. So there are people who could have provided a counter weight from the platform to the very pro-GM bias of the substantive part of the day. They were not present.
3.The format of the day combined with the speaker make-up to make it even more problematic. The format of presentations and specific Question and Answers (note that any attempt to introduce wider point or statements were generally harshly dealt with by the chairs) meant that substantive issues were dodged whilst further pro-GM statements were made from the platform. I deliberately chose not to ask questions at one point because I realised how pointless questions to the platform would be. The Å’open discussion”š at the end of the day was a bit of a shambles and seemed increasingly pointless as it rambled on. This is often the case when substantive points raised through the day are not dealt with at the time but shovelled together at the end. At this final session there were lots of statements and points made of one form or another but inevitably because there were so many threads from earlier in the day and elsewhaere, any substantive discussion was pretty much lost.
4.Substantive points that I raised about controllability in the somewhat chaotic world of agriculture were brushed aside or at best answered partially. Yet incidents like Starlink, the Advanta seed contamination from Canada, seed recalls etc. actually happened. They are not lab experiments and some answers are required because they show the limits of the controlled conditions of field trials and lab work. Answers were not forthcoming during the entire day. Nor did I detect (before I left) any convincing answers to the concerns of RSPB re how farmers would use the technology in practice and where the technology would be taken up (i.e. it would be used to simplify weed management on highly weedy fields that have disproportionate importance in terms of biodiversity value). That there was a whole day on Å’the environment and GMOs”š and this was not answered is little short of scandalous.
5.A cynical person on a bad day would conclude that the entire exercise was a PR stunt for the technology designed to give a pro GM conclusion whilst sidelining real questions. Without a major self-examination I doubt that any further event held by the Royal Society on GMOs will be worth attending.
6.I found Prof Lachman”šs comments on the Royal Society only dealing with Å’evidence”š laughable in the light of Monday”šs Royal Society press release on energy and the need for nuclear power. (Needless to say my attempt to raise this from the floor failed amongst so many other people trying to raise their own points. I notice that Bob May didn”št have that problem). The supporting Å’evidence”š for this pro-nuclear statement is little better than a stringing together of an argument including some highly dubious and contestable assumptions. Trying to get something like that peer-reviewed at, say, Imperial College would be unlikely to achieve approval for publication. At least Pallab Ghosh from the BBC got it right in saying that the RS has Å’long been campaigning for nuclear power”š, or words to that effect.
It was, quite frankly, a disgrace to call this a discussion about GMOs. The speaker line-up and format combined to make it a very one-sided event which has not significantly advanced the debate.
Subject: Re: RE: FW: Royal Society GMO Meeting
Date: Fri, 14 Feb 2003 00:03:38 -0000
I agree with your critiques of the meeting. Moreover, the term 'scientific' was used systematically to suppress or ignore inconvenient issues. This bias operated at many levels:
* Structure of the day:
Fragmentation of issues, so that agro-biodiversity factors could be seriously analysed in the morning but then largely ignored when considering GMHT crops in the afternoon. No analysis of how the FSEs attempt to simulate commercial farming, the limits of doing so, the relevance to real-world farmer practices, etc. Although one speaker mentioned the potential problem of intensification, this was not linked to research methods, nor to the real-world influences on farmer practices.
* Individual talks:
Selective citation or even misrepresentation of scientific findings, e.g. Guy Poppy's account of research on non-target harm from Bt, as compared to the Ecostrat critique. This was even worse than the omission of Snow's or Pilson's work. Omission of research showing that GMHT crop systems can worsen or improve biodiversity, depending on farmer practices. (Or did I miss that?)
* Biased chairing:
Censorship of comments which were no less 'scientific' (or no more political) than many blatant statements within the main talks -- which, for example, imputed emotional motives to critics. The chairing could be called double standards, except that there was really a single standard -- labelling as 'non-scientific' (or simply deferring) comments which lay outside the dominant paradigm of intensive monoculture, its technical fixes, military metaphors, etc..
We should encourage each other to work up our initial observations into commentaries for the 'public debate' webpage.
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