It’s obvious, isn’t it?

15 Aug 2012

I have heard or read two things in the media over the last few days that struck home. The first was on the radio about a joke T-shirt worn by someone on the Google campus. It went something like ‘those who claim they know everything really annoy those of us who actually do’. It reminded me of the well known phrase ‘the arrogance of science’.

The second was an article on scientific fraud in the Sunday Times. It claimed that some scientists are sociopaths. That had me running to the dictionary (well, Google again). The definition of a sociopath can be summed up as someone without a social conscience.

So, how good is the science that supports products and decisions taken by individuals and governments? Do vested interests corrupt the messages coming from the data in order to prove that they really do know everything or is the data itself sometimes fabricated? The Sunday Times article suggested that even fabricated data has been the source of peer reviewed papers. The people (or sociopaths?) doing this are either anxious to make a name for themselves and/or to get the next bit of research funding.

Does this happen in agriculture? Well, I hope not but there is always the tendency to look at data in a way that favours your own personal opinion. This is only natural but some describe it as a vested interest. As the Sunday Times loftily quotes, the only vested interest of science should be the uncovering of the secrets of nature.

So, how should this issue be tackled? Some are asking for some kind of commission to follow up the concerns expressed by scientists and others on particular research findings. Apparently there is such a body in the USA. However, much of the concern can be overcome by letting other scientists have access to all the data to interpret and also the ability to do follow-up research to confirm (or otherwise) the data itself. This of course assumes that others have the time, the facilities and the funding to do such things. The concern is that these prerequisites are getting increasingly scarce in agricultural research. On the other hand, information technology has made it a lot easier to transfer and re-analyse data.

There have been ‘issues’ between scientists and agronomists in agriculture but these tend to have arisen for entirely innocent reasons. What is more, they have been overcome through transparency and follow-up research. One of the most notable examples was about controlled drop application (CDA) of pesticides. It is an attractive theory. Avoid the too small drops and the too large drops that are contained in a conventional spray and you have the ability to reduce volumes and even reduce doses. Scientists recorded significantly more pesticide on the target with this method of application.

However, when agronomists tested CDA in the field, they became aware of shortcomings. Dose for dose efficacy, at best, was no better than conventional nozzles. Weed control under a thick crop canopy was worse than with the conventional nozzle. These findings led to great friction between the scientists involved with the concept of CDA and agronomists. However, this led to very constructive discussions between the two ‘sides’ which resulted in follow-up projects that showed, amongst other things, that the quantity of the dose on the target was not the only determinant of efficacy. It was also about where on the target the pesticide was deposited. CDA is very good at getting pesticides on the horizontal surfaces of the target whereas the vertical parts of the target are the ones where pesticides often exhibit the most activity. Hence, the follow up research generated key information for the future; true progress.

I should say that this does not mean that CDA does not have a role in agriculture. Sales of equipment, particularly overseas, demonstrate that it has a real role to play in specific circumstances.

However, this all goes to show that however good the scientists, they do not know it all, even if their reports and talks suggest they do. It is beholden to the rest of the industry to test what they tell us. Above all scientists, like farmers, need to show humility towards the natural world.