NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

Who’d be a scientist?

Posted on 18/02/2015 by Jim Orson

Who'd be a scientist?In my previous blog I mentioned that refined sugar does not contain DNA and so sugar from GM sugar beet cannot be anything other than exactly the same as sugar from non-GM sugar beet.

Within a couple of days of that blog being uploaded onto the NIAB website the issue of the amount of sugar in soft drinks was in the headlines. In the ensuing discussion, there were accusations that scientists had been bought out by the soft drinks industry. “Obesity experts advising the government are being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by the junk food industry” railed the Daily Mail.

This prompted responses from the scientists named absolutely refuting the accusation. One response included that following statement. “As someone who cares passionately about engaging the public in a debate about science, my greatest sadness is that in the absence of evidence, implying that bias exists and that there has been wrongdoing by scientists, simply erodes trust and confidence in research and is a disservice to the public”.

There are no doubt increasing efforts to discredit the role of science in decision making. It is particularly unfortunate that national newspapers, without a shred of evidence, sometimes seem to encourage this notion. True, the Government actively encourages scientists to work with industry but newspapers are not acting in the national interest, as they claim, if they take the easy and populist approach of just repeating the claims of ideologically led lobby groups.

It is fashionable to back the groups or individuals who lobby against corporations and governments. The Daily Mail’s support for Dr Simon Wakefield, the disgraced doctor who created doubts over the safety of the MMR vaccine, is a case in point. Newspapers have to come to terms with the fact that such individuals or lobby groups have their own agendas which may not reflect the good of the general public. For instance, Forbes magazine said of Greenpeace recently that it is “a skilfully managed business, with full command of the tools of direct mail and image manipulation and tactics that would bring instant condemnation if practiced by a for-profit corporation”. In fact, Greenpeace is itself a corporation which shows a clear desire to increase its income. The most recent annual report states an income for Greenpeace Worldwide of 288 million Euros over half of which is spent on fund raising and administration. It has alienated many of its original founders, most notably co-founder Patrick Moore (not THAT one) who said “ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favour of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986”.

Part of their agenda is to ensure that farming is ‘ecologically based’ and they spend around 5 million Euros a year to campaign on this issue. Of course, like many campaign groups they do not define too tightly what they mean by ecologically based farming but they are very good at saying what they are against. This recently included getting rid of the Scientific Adviser to the European Commission who had the temerity to say that the scientific consensus supported GM technology, GM Golden Rice, that would help prevent blindness and other health issues in some parts of the world, and the neonic seed dressings. Unfortunately, Greenpeace is by no means the only group that appears to be led by an ideology rather than science based-facts.

In the USA, lobby groups have now developed another technique to attack scientists who do not share the same view. Much of the time of government funded GM researchers is now taken up with having to respond to endless requests for information under the freedom of information legislation.

So, it is not a good time to be a scientist in some subject areas. On the other hand, protest groups are keen to quote science when it suits them. A prime example is the climate change activists who constantly say that the overwhelming scientific view supports their objectives.

The only reaction that scientists can take to such attitudes is calmly to state the facts and not to be drawn into a charged political debate. That is not to say that scientists are perfect! In some cases they have to be challenged on issues such as choice of methods and treatments, interpretation of the data generated and the full disclosure of results, including those that may not support their hypotheses. Good scientists relish such a debate because it should lead to a better understanding and a wider consensus.

This reminds me, I must contact some scientists about their interpretation of the data published in a recent Defra project report. You may hear more of this later!

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