GM humble pie and boy scout ethics
NOTE: A shorter version of Tom Wakeford's article (item 1) appeared previously in The Guardian.
EXTRACT: The philosopher Kierkegaard pointed out that the more ridiculous the dogma, the more ardent the belief that is required by those who support it. Completely preposterous arguments, such as those used to defend deficit thinking or that GM crops will feed the world, require unflinching faith. (item 1)
1. Humble pie and boy scout ethics
Tom Wakeford reflects on the GM saga
Science & Public Affairs, June 2008
Historians will see 15 April 2008 as a milestone in science policy. It was the date when the GM crop dream was officially judged to be a fantasy. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the agricultural version of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), concluded 'that data on some GM crops indicate highly variable yield gains in some places and declines in others' - as the Guardian put it. Of course the door was left open that, in future, it would be unwise to rule out GM crops; but, as the widely-respected Practical Action (1) group commented, 'the report rightly concludes that small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis.'
It's time for lots of science policy-makers to start eating GM humble pie. Urgent questions must now be raised about the lessons that policy-makers have drawn from the GM debate. With the exception of John Battle, every UK Science Minister and Chief Scientist since Labour came to power, together with media-friendly scientists and policy wonks, have assumed that the public, to use an oft-heard phrase, 'misunderstood the facts' in rejecting the current generation of GM crops. In reality, in virtually every deliberative process undertaken from Brazil to Bangalore, Mali to Medak, the jury went out, and it came back saying no to GM. And it was broadly correct.
I should declare an interest. Together with Andy Stirling from the Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex, I was involved in the first citizens' jury to discuss GM exactly ten years ago. Its 1998 report concurs with the 2008 IAASTD findings.
We've had ten years and, I suspect, tens of millions of pounds, promoting transgenic crops as a solution for world hunger and sustainable agriculture. This in the face of the balance of scientific evidence, the findings of at least twelve deliberative democratic processes, and even the elaborate GM Nation process commissioned and controlled by the UK government, which had all come to a very different conclusion about transgenics.
Deficit model returning
The Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS) is currently re-thinking the relationship between science and society. Some within government, though not the research councils, are still using the GM debate, alongside the MMR controversy, in support of attempts to send us back to the dark age of the deficit model. The irrationality of this model, contrasting officially-approved experts, the founts of all wisdom, with mere lay people, is now beyond argument. So how could it possibly return?
Judging by their practices, the model still seems to dominate large pockets of the BA, the European Commission, the UK government (especially DIUS) and much of the media. The philosopher Kierkegaard pointed out that the more ridiculous the dogma, the more ardent the belief that is required by those who support it. Completely preposterous arguments, such as those used to defend deficit thinking or that GM crops will feed the world, require unflinching faith.
It's not that the individual employees of these bureaucracies are the problem, but rather that their leaders have failed to develop systems that allow their organisations to learn. Like the ministerial aides who convinced themselves that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the science communication community has succumbed to what social psychologists call 'group think', a collective denial for members of tight-knit teams that there could be overwhelming evidence that contradicts the facts as they see them.
Our last Chief Scientist, Sir David King, seemed to think that most problems related to public trust in science could be solved by the application of the deficit model and his Ethical Code. 'If every scientist followed the code', said King, 'we would improve the quality of science and remove many of the concerns society has about research.' Analyst Sheila Jasanoff has commented that this amounts to no more than 'boy scout' ethics.
Knowledge from experience
The funding councils are not without their deficit fans. They've even been known to support deficit fringe groups such as Sense About Science. Thankfully, wiser heads at the councils decided to set up the six Beacons for Public Engagement. Together we have four years to show that researchers at universities can welcome those whose expertise comes from experience, rather than formal training, as co-producers of useful knowledge.
I wonder how many hunger-related deaths in developing countries could have been avoided if science policy-makers had applied this philosophy to GM ten years ago.
(1) Formerly known as the Intermediate Technology Development Group
Tom Wakeford is Director of the Durham-Newcastle Beacon for Public Engagement
2. Upstream engagement
Tee Rogers-Hayden and Nick Pidgeon sound a caution
Science & Public Affairs, June 2008
In the UK, Europe and latterly the USA, there has been a burst of ‘upstream engagement’ on nanotechnologies.1 In our view, upstream dialogue is an important innovation. However, it should not be used to recreate a new deficit model, in which objections to aspects of new technologies are seen to rest on a lack of early public engagement, rather than on a lack of public understanding of science as was previously believed.
Upstream engagement is an important innovation which we previously touched upon in a contribution to June 2005 (785KB), when we contrasted engagement on GM with that on nanotechnologies. Upstream public engagement reflects what appears to be a genuine desire to enhance relationships between science and wider society, yet it remains a contested matter both in concept and practice. We want to encourage developments in such science-society relationships, yet wish to caution against simply replacing the old view of a deficit in science communication by a new orthodoxy of a deficit in public engagement.
Our thoughts here draw on a number of our projects related to engagement on nanotechnologies, including observation of NanoJury UK and interviews with stakeholders following publication of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering's 2004 report.(2)
Dialogue about emerging technologies
‘Upstream engagement’ is a catchphrase encapsulating efforts to engage members of the (multiple) publics and stakeholders in dialogue about emerging technologies, before R&D trajectories have become established.
While the term has gained wide currency, it is often merely used in contrast to ‘downstream’ dialogue. This typically occurs too late in the process to have significant influence.
Although this shorthand might have over-simplistic connotations of a linear process of technology development, it is not intended to imply that technologies develop in anything but a multitude of ways. The tensions within the notion of upstream engagement which we touch upon here are first, that there are a variety of interpretations about its purpose; and second, that there are differing approaches to the role of public involvement in technology development.
Deficits and interactions
The first tension revolves around the purpose of engaging various publics early in debate. Early involvement means, almost by definition, that public opinion about nanotechnologies has yet to develop, so public engagement is seen both as having the advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s viewpoint of being used to shape emerging discussions about nanotechnologies and their acceptability.
In the 1980s, public understanding of science supposed that objections to technologies rested on a deficit in public knowledge.(3) Enthusiasts for upstream engagement might now argue that a diversity of perspectives on technologies rests on a deficit in public engagement. Thus, upstream engagement might simply be replacing one model of one-way science communication with another.
The second issue involves the perceived role of the public in upstream dialogue. Early discussions have the potential benefit of moving beyond a focus on the impacts of existing technologies on people, to discuss interactions between society and new technologies. It’s a small but significant word change from downstream social and ethical ‘impacts’ to upstream public ‘interactions’ with the technologies. However, without an emphasis on interactions rather than impacts, the role of the publics in relation to nanotechnologies is always likely to be confined to deliberating issues around the downstream or post-production phase.
Taking the upstream metaphor seriously provides an opportunity for moving away from a discussion of technology impacts, to debate wider visions of the relationship between technology and society.
It also means assessing how suitable technologies might be for society, rather than assuming that society passively accepts technologies to be value- and power-neutral and thus ‘given’. What this might in turn open up is more explicit analysis of the often-hidden assumptions about the power relationships between technologies and society.
It would acknowledge that there are multiple paths technologies could take, that are not always visible: in particular,
Early engagement reveals power relationships
the power relations a technology embodies, and the balance between corporate and civil society interests and control. Upstream engagement may thus provide a means of focusing on topics which typically remain outside traditional discussions of the trajectory and conduct of science.
Focusing on the interactions between science and society, upstream dialogue may even lead to even greater differences of opinion than seen with downstream issues, as debate revolves around visions for the future of society and the role technologies will play in this. It is a sobering thought that upstream engagement may be more difficult to implement than traditional forms of public dialogue with science!
1. Involve (2007). Democratic Technologies? The final report of the Nanotechnologies Engagement Group (NEG) www.involve.org.uk/negreport
2. T. Rogers-Hayden & N. Pidgeon (2007) Moving Engagement ‘Upstream’? Nanotechnologies & the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s Inquiry, Special Issue, Public Understanding of Science. 16, 345-364
3. A. Irwin and B. Wynne, eds (1996) Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tee Rogers-Hayden is at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia
Professor Nick Pidgeon is at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University