Lessons from Rothamsted

Nine takeaways from yesterday's protest for the GM scientists and their supporters.

Yesterday, police officers helped scientists defend a field of genetically modified wheat from anti-GM protestors. The wheat, planted in a field at the government-run Rothamsted research station, contains a gene that makes the plants emit an aphid alarm signal; the idea is that this will keep aphids away from the crop. Protestors from a group known as Take Back The Flour had announced they were planning to destroy the plants in order to protect the environment from cross-pollination by genetically modified organisms. The scientists countered that the risk of this happening was minimal, and that the research was necessary for progress in food production.

On the day, protestors didn’t manage to cross police lines. The crops are safe and the police are gone, but there are no winners. So what lessons might the scientists and their supporters learn?

1. Don’t ignore natural, evolved human values

Anti-GM protests are about visceral, emotional – and entirely natural – disgust reactions to tinkering with nature. It’s uncanny valley for plants. It’s like asking people to accept zombie waiters at restaurants: however  good the staff is, no one is going to be relaxed about it until at least the cheese course. You can’t get people to accept GM as a force for good until you have given them time to get used to the idea that mutant nature is not as unsettling as it might seem. But if we can get used to Tom Hanks in the Polar Express, there is hope we can accept GM crops.

2. Look what other scientists are doing

The nanotechnology people are aware of public concerns and are pressing forward, very slowly, with lots of consultation. So are the people who see medical potential in mixing human and animal genetics. We all need time to talk, you see. The only time you can come in all guns blazing in this kind of research is if you’ve got a killer solution. IVF was a good example: no one – not even the scientists – wanted it. Then Louise Brown was born, and everyone wanted it. Things can turn around: let’s look for the Louise Brown of GM crops. But scaring away a few aphids won’t cut it.

3. Stop griping that your opponents won’t take part in a “rational debate”

Science owns rational debate. Asking protestors to come and have a rational debate is like inviting them to “step down into this dark alley where my friends are waiting to greet you.” Instead, listen to their concerns in silence, then go away and discuss them. Ideally, BEFORE you plant the seeds.

4. Don’t name-call

Luddites. Anti-science. Vandals. Ignorant idiots . . . can you see how this isn’t helping?

5. Don’t cultivate a Geldof complex

Your crops are probably not going to change everything for Africa. Yes, there’s going to be a problem feeding 9 billion people. But the biggest threat is climate change. Maybe GM food will help, but it’s too soon to say. Science-based “solutions” like GM food and geoengineering the planet seem brilliant, but can be a distraction from dealing with the real problem. Let’s face it: equitable distribution of available resources would go a long way towards feeding those who are starving now.

6. Don’t pretend your experiment is the endgame

All the evidence suggests that genetic modification of food, like antibiotic treatment,  is like a chess match against a highly creative opponent. The scientific strategies look good for a while, but every move eventually gets countered by evolution. DDT, for instance, only worked for a short time in wiping out mosquito populations.

7. Think about what you’re doing for the public perception of science

If your experiment needs a steel fence and a police cordon, it just doesn’t look good. Sometimes, protection is necessary, as with the anti-vivisectionists, but that’s a whole step up in terms of emotive issues. To the casual observer, a field of wheat being protected by police officers just seems sinister.

8. Don’t expect a YouTube video to change anyone’s mind

Asking people not to destroy the crops because this represents years of work is not a great argument in circumstances where people don’t like your work. Imagine Colonel Gaddafi releasing a video protesting he had spent years building up his tyrannous regime, and you get the idea.

9. Don’t claim you have a public mandate just because some other scientists approved your grant proposal

You have a grant – that is all. The public have no idea what is being approved in their name. And that’s what we all need to talk about. Before this happens again.

A "Take Back The Flour" protester in Harpenden, Hertfordshire on Sunday. Photo: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.