GM Crops in Australia: A Failure in Science Communication?

Guest post by Chris Bryant

I was interested in Martin Rees’ comment, reported in Guy Micklethwait’s recent post, to the effect that the scientists of genetically modified crops entered the fray too late to have any impact. I followed the debate at the time with great interest.

The move against GM foods had been so severe in the UK that on 23 May 2002, Prime Minister Blair decided to address the Royal Society.  He said it was time to end the air of suspicion and mistrust – and the ignorance – with which the public sometimes viewed the work of cutting edge scientists. He promised to break down the anti-science fashion in Britain and claimed he would never give way to misguided protesters who stood in the way of medical and economic advances.  And this is where he got into trouble with both the scientists and the science communicators.

On 24 May, 2002, The Times newspaper reported that

the Prime Minister is privately furious at the actions of protesters which have resulted in work being held up on research into genetically modified foods, and at disruption that could threaten a neurological research project in Cambridge aimed at helping sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. He is angry over the regular description of GM foods as ‘Frankenstein foods’, and at the way science was blamed for the BSE emergency. ‘BSE was not caused by bad science but by bad practices’.


Blair’s problem, and that of his Government, was that he defined science in terms of politics and the economy. The address caused great outrage on the Internet, with reputable scientists pointing out that because they had misgivings about GM foods they were not anti-science. Continue reading

What Makes a Good Science Communicator?

Guest post by Chris Bryant

I have been pondering this question for a long time and it is especially apposite now, when we are surrounded by science communicators of all levels of competence.  The best and most effective one I ever encountered in my discipline was Sidnie Milana Manton FRS (the photo was taken towards the end of her life).

I met her in my first week in the Zoology Department at  King’s College London in 1955. She was a tall, spare, distant woman with greying hair and steel-rimmed glasses, and a high-pitched raspy voice that tended to become querulous with rage. It was not until I was assigned to her tutorial group in second year that I overcame the sense of awe I felt towards her and began to appreciate the outstanding quality of her mind.

She was an invertebrate biologist of great intellectual breadth. A major influence in her own career was a Royal Society expedition to the Barrier Reef in the 1920s. The collections she made then filled half the College museum and a good proportion of the London Natural History one as well. The less important material was trotted out for undergraduates to mishandle. In our final exam we had to dissect sea hares that she had collected on the Reef, more than thirty years previously. Most of their innards were, by then, liquid but she made no concessions. She remarked, of the finished work of one student, that it looked as if he had done it with his teeth.

Continue reading

Martin Rees addresses the Australian Academy of Science

Guest post by Guy Micklethwait

Recently Lord Martin Rees, a University of Cambridge professor and president of the Royal Society, gave a talk at the Australian Academy of Science. The Shine Dome was filled to capacity, as he spoke about the role of science in facing the upcoming world challenges over the next 50 years. He made some interesting points about science communication:

First: that research was only one part of the role of scientists; the other part was communicating their research to the public, to other scientists and to politicians. He felt this was important because he wanted policy makers to get the best possible advice – based on high quality science.

Second: “The GM [genetically modified] crops debate went wrong in the UK because scientists came in too late.” Ongoing protests to industry had already polarised the argument and British public opinion had become anti-GM before scientists had joined the discussion. He said that in the UK they didn’t want this to happen with nanotechnology, so they were making sure that scientists were involved in that discussion right from the start.

Third: that it is important to engage with the public at a conceptual level without too much detail, so that they can become aware of the issues. He said that everyone had a right to participate in public debates about controversial scientific developments such as nuclear power and designer babies, but that “citizens all need at least a feel for science and a realistic attitude to risk.”

A member of the audience pointed out that as a member of the House of Lords, he was a politician as well as a scientist, and asked him whether he thought more scientists should become involved in politics. He replied that as a rule, he didn’t think scientists would make good politicians, but rather they should concentrate on communicating their science to the existing politicians.