This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Don't Destroy Science (or the reputation of people with genuine concerns)

RESEARCHERS at Rothamsted Research are currently conducting a field trial of a genetically modified wheat crop engineered to express a naturally occurring repellent of aphids, a major crop pest. Many crops and plants already do this, so it makes sense to see whether it might prove an effective tool in a staple species that we rely on so heavily for food. We face two issues: a global food demand increasing inexorably, and a global abuse of pesticides, which are wreaking havoc on the environment. Thus, if successful, the crop could be used to help in the fight against both problems, as the plant would create its own natural deterrent, increasing the efficiency of yield and boosting food output. We don't know if it will work, so we have to experiment.

Genetic modification is always a sensitive issue, so the researchers have taken every effort to avoid contamination of other crops, given that the trial is in the open air. This is not just common sense and efforts to appease objectors but a legal requirement. For more information on the science, I recommend this article by the Guardian, and this article by my friend Nelly, who works at Rothamsted (though on a different project).

An anti-GM campaign group called Take The Flour Back has vowed to demonstrate against the trial on May 27. It is their right to be able to do so. People will have misgivings and a discussion ought to ensue about the ethics and practicalities of the trial. Yet though the scientists have offered to talk, the protestors have said no. On the contrary, the protesters have vowed not simply to demonstrate... but to 'decontaminate' - that is, to destroy the crop.

This is illegal, irresponsible and unjust, but most of all it is counter-productive.

The objections voiced are precisely the questions the trial is seeking to answer. We don't know if it will work or is safe, and we won't know until they try. If it doesn't work, it will be stopped. As Rothamsted's John Pickett says in his open letter to the protesters:
As scientists we know only too well that we do not have all the answers. That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them.
As scientists, it is right that the public understand and be able to question what we do. But by refusing to talk, refusing to listen and twisting the facts to their own means (they have gone to town with the factually inaccurate 'cow gene' statement you will see in their literature) and seeking simply to be destructive, Take The Flour Back are putting those with any valid objections in a very bad light. They are bullies.

From Rothamsted to supporters of the Sense About Science petition #dontdestroyscience:

Dear Signatory
Thank you very much indeed for all your support on this petition and kind emails since our appeal. 
We have the bad news that yesterday an individual broke into the experimental site and caused substantial damage. However, the overall integrity of the experiment has not yet been compromised. This is even more reason why we are extremely worried that the Take the Flour Back group is continuing with plans for direct action to destroy our GM wheat experiment entirely next Sunday. It has now issued logistical instructions for doing this and a ‘legal briefing’ for activists. 
The group says it wants to destroy the crop because of a 'contamination' risk through cross-pollination with other wheat in fields a long way away. Their reason for pulling it up on 27 May was that “wheat is wind-pollinated” and that this was the last weekend before pollination is likely to occur. They did not seem to realise when they booked this date that wheat is in fact self-pollinating, and that therefore almost no pollen leaves the plant, let alone the field. We have informed them of this misunderstanding, but to no avail. They have also refused our offer to debate the issues in public in front of an audience, saying they do not have the “capacity” to field a speaker. 
In the thousands of signatories on the petition against destroying our research, there are many diverse voices, including farmers, environmentalists, people local to Rothamsted, researchers in other fields, writers, musicians and all walks of life. We know many of you want to do something to help, and may feel angry and powerless about this latest vandalism. However, in discussions with the authorities, we cannot have our supporters counter-protesting on the day as it would provoke the kind of conflict that we have been trying to avoid. The only way forward is through communication and verbal engagement. 
Take the Flour Back don't need to hear angry invective, but as a last ditch attempt at getting them to call off their action, we think they should understand why so many people oppose destroying the research. The only way we know of reaching them is at info@taketheflourback.org. Although they may not reply, they will be taking note of the strong support that we have received. 
Best regards
Toby Bruce (Scientist specialising in plant-insect interactions, Team Leader)
Gia Aradottir (Insect Biology, Postdoc)
Huw Jones (Wheat Transformation, Coinvestigator)
Lesley Smart (Field Entomology)
Janet Martin (Field Entomology)
Johnathan Napier (Plant Science, Coinvestigator)
John Pickett (Chemical Ecology, Principal Investigator)

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