The Agenda Gap in Science

by admin

Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson

Writing in New Scientist recently (New Scientist 06-01-07), Bernard Dixon, a former editor, bemoaned the lack of dialogue between scientists and the public and warned of the dangers of disengagement. Unfortunately, like many people, both in and out of science, his conception of the relationship between science and society lacks clarity and this is a pity because this relationship is ultimately what sustains science. Nevertheless, he does identify one exceptionally important point: it is not lack of public enthusiasm that undermines the engagement process, it is lack of enthusiasm on the part of scientists and policymakers. But, despite this acknowledgement Bernard Dixon never manages to answer why efforts to sustain dialogue have never succeeded. Maybe we can propose an answer?

Fifty years ago, the purpose of science was widely acknowledged to be the advancement of the common good. All publicly funded science (military excepted) was public interest science and industry science was a very minor component of the total. In the 1970s it was realised that science and research spending could boost economies and, gradually, ever more science was funded for that reason. This trend, compounded by the Bayh-Dole Act and patents on genes and organisms, has now more or less reached its logical conclusion. The people who hold the purse strings of science consider that boosting the economy is close to being the only justification for science funding that counts.

Nevertheless, individual scientists often do not take this view. Many bring to their research a deep conviction that they wish to contribute positively to society, or that research is of value simply for its contribution to human understanding. However, between the aims of the policymakers, which are essentially amoral, and those of individual scientists who wish some ‘good’ to come from their work there is what might usefully be called an agenda gap, which at times is very wide and very deep. It is a gap that neither individual scientists, nor policymakers, adequately acknowledge.

A very good example of this agenda gap is that many researchers in plant biology and agriculture make and study transgenic crops. They typically hope that this will ultimately help the environment, farmers and agriculture (1). The US government however strenuously promotes transgenic crops (using the USDA, USAID, bilateral trade agreements, the World Bank, the UN system, etc) for an entirely different reason. This reason has nothing to do with alleviating poverty or helping farmers in other countries. It recognises instead that transgenics are a way of ensuring the dominance of US agribusiness multinationals in the international markets of global agriculture. The long and short of it is that transgenic crops are an outstanding business model: they bring enforceable intellectual property (ie patents on transgenes) to the seed business. Thus patentable transgenes have conferred upon plant breeding the status of ‘strategic technology’ and propelled it to the top of the corporate (and thus political) agenda. This newfound significance has meant that GMOs have been discussed at G8 meetings and at other international fora far outside what would normally be expected for a novel method of plant breeding. Appreciation of this point allows an understanding that it is a mistake to assume that there is one and only one ‘true’ purpose of plant biotechnology, but it is a mistake that biologists regularly make.

Agenda gaps exist in other scientific disciplines although they are rarely as profound as they are in agricultural biotechnology. For example, politicians fund medical research not only to find cures for human diseases, but because they believe that the biotech economy is the new economy. They could of course also fund preventative medicine and epidemiology to an equal extent, and for the same money they might help more people, but few biotech startups would result and the prevailing perception is that there would be few clear benefits to the monetary economy. As in agricultural biotechnology though, relatively few people recognise the active choices embodied in the pursuit of these agendas.

All of which leads to practical difficulties for any meaningful dialogue between scientists and the public. For example, when scientists argue that the purpose of their research is to feed the hungry millions, the public doesn’t necessarily believe in this motivation. One does not need to be especially cynical to conclude that the unbridled enthusiasm for transgenic crops has not merely been the consequence of a spontaneous upwelling of sympathy for the poor and dispossessed.

Bernard Dixon acknowledges no such thing as an agenda gap, but unable to discover any clear and compelling reason for the virtual-nonexistence of public-scientist dialogues, he chooses instead a decidedly unintellectual escape route, one taken by more than a few scientists unable to bring the public round to their way of thinking. He invokes a powerful and irrational ‘anti-science’ movement stirred up by ‘lobby groups’ and ‘that ha[s] to be answered’. However, he provides no evidence for such a movement, which is in defiance of the fact that most people, in Britain and elsewhere, dislike GMOs and pesticides but happily use and pay for mobile phones and pharmaceuticals, SatNav and aeroplanes.

What then is required for an open dialogue? For their part, scientists must acknowledge, to themselves and others, the fact of diverse and divergent social agendas in science. They must recognise that science embodies the hopes and expectations of multiple and sometimes conflicting interest groups, from multinational corporations to farmers, consumers to politicians but that the balance achieved among these agendas and interest groups is not necessarily the one that the public at large would choose if they were allowed.

Such an acknowledgement within science is fundamentally necessary. It will not on its own be sufficient to overcome differences of opinion on risk issues or the appropriate balance with precaution but it is a world away from the old presumption that hostility to science results from a deficiency in public understanding and it is a reminder to scientists of exactly why dialogue involves listening and not just lecturing.

(1) Interestingly though, a recent plant breeding textbook has proposed that the definition of plant breeding should be the ‘Art and science of changing heredity of plants to improve their economic utility to man’. Chahal, G. and Gosal, S. (2002) Principles and Procedures of Plant Breeding. Alpha Science International Ltd

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