Dialogue or Direct Action? – Prof Sir Peter Gluckman

In the wake of anti-GM sentiments at home and abroad, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, writes on his blog about science, society and the all-important “understanding of risk”.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Dialogue or Direct Action?

There is a very interesting initiative to create a dialogue under way in Britain. Anti-GM activists have indicated that at the end of May they are going to destroy approved field experiments of genetically modified wheat, performed by a very reputable research centre at Rothamsted. A group of the scientists involved in the research has responded with a letter questioning the activists’ intent. In doing so, they point out the paradox of stating on one hand that there is no evidence that the technology is safe, yet on the other blocking the very experiments that are designed to help understanding. The science group is seeking a conversation and at the same time asking for respect for well-controlled scientific experiments performed under strict, and democratically approved, guidelines. There are indications that some sort of a dialogue about new technologies will occur.

This is all reminiscent of the action earlier this year that disrupted a field trial of GM pine trees at one of New Zealand’s public research institutes, except that no opportunity for dialogue was offered then. But, more generally, it raises the important issue I alluded to in an earlier blog post with reference to Nina Federoff’s speech as president of AAAS in January. That is the spectre of growing anti-scientism that, in the US in particular, has become conflated with partisan political process.

We face many challenges ahead. We can roughly agree on what kind of New Zealand we want. We want a high standard of living and the best possible health for everyone, we want greater societal cohesion, and we want to achieve that prosperity while protecting our environment. The political discourse is primarily on what one needs to do to get there, and the relative weightings to give to each of these goals. For the simple reality is that there is no free lunch; everything we do involves trade-offs. Sustaining 40% more people on the planet, many of whom expect and have the right to expect far better standards of living, will involve more energy consumption, more food production, more resource use and more environmental impact – there is no way around that.

On one hand the debate is about technology, on the other it is about sets of values and beliefs. The question is whether such values and beliefs are likely to change as evidence for or against safety emerges? These issues are real, and technological advances must be accompanied by greater scientific literacy for all if participatory democracy is not to respond in a sceptical or even fearful fashion.

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