Wednesday, 2 June 2010

THE LIMITS OF SOUND SCIENCE: PUBLIC CONSULTATIONS, ACCOUNTABILITY AND FALL OUT AT THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY

By John Thompson and Erik Millstone
Co-Convenors, Food and Agriculture Domain, The STEPS Centre

Brian Wynne, Professor of Science Studies at CSEC and at the ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen) and a member of the STEPS Centre International Advisory Board, announced on the 31st of May 2010 that he was stepping down as Vice Chairman of an independent steering group set up by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to shape and manage a public dialogue on food and the use of genetic modification (GM). In interviews on the BBC Radio Four Today Programme and in the Telegraph newspaper on the 2nd of June, he asserted that the public consultation was “rigged” to soften up British public opinion on GM, stating: “In that sense it is in line with so much public policy in Britain that assumes the public is anti-science".

Earlier in the week another member of the group, Dr Helen Wallace, Director of GeneWatch UK, also resigned in protest at the FSA's allegedly close links with the biotechnology industry. In her public letter of resignation to Professor John Curtice, Chair of the FSA Public Dialogue Steering Committee, she declared that it had become clear to her that the purpose of the FSA process was nothing more than a public relations exercise on behalf of the GM industry. Wallace also believes that the consultation process embarked on by the FSA “would be a significant waste of £500,000 of taxpayers’ money”.

As the new coalition government, in particular the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is looking for waste to cut, it remains to be seen whether the FSA’s exercise continues without Wynne and Wallace or is rapidly terminated.

The FSA’s dialogue was supposed to provide an opportunity to discuss with members of the public their understanding of GM in food and what they think are its potential risks and benefits. It was also expected to try to identify what information people need and want in order to make confident, informed choices about the food they eat. Both Wallace and Wynne’s resignations came in part because they felt that the FSA’s consultation focused too narrowly on the science of GM, rather than on broader questions about food safety, food security and food justice, which meant that the concerns of the public will not be heard. In Wynne’s public letter of resignation of 31 May 2010 to Professor Curtice, he emphasises this point:

“This is not just a question of whether arguments and opinions beyond pro-GM will be included in the dialogue. I am sure that they will, and that this will be documented – but that was never my point... This is that, even if wider positions are heard, if no one challenges the institutional dogma which afflicts FSA and it seems other government bodies, that the issues are scientific and the only perspective which can be properly used to assess these is (so-called) ‘sound science’, then these wider frameworks will be doomed to dismissal before they have even been properly heard, since some of them at least are saying that a (so-called) ‘sound science’ perspective cannot possibly accommodate, understand and assess some of the key issues over global food and its food-chains (including GM), and their resilience, sustainability and justice.”

In both national and international debates on contentious science and technology policy issues, such as climate change and GM food, it is common to organise committees to guide public consultations and translate complex scientific findings into policy-relevant forms. These bodies frequently combine knowledge and skills from experts in different fields and contexts. Their authority derives in part from individual members’ scientific expertise, impartiality and sound judgement and in part from the views they represent. The FSA’s Public Dialogue Steering Committee is an example of one such body which sought to do this around the GM food debate.

The resignations of Wynne and Wallace reflect the narrowness of those bodies, for they highlight growing concerns about how readily policy issues can be framed by powerful interests, such as the biotechnology firms, masquerading as ‘sound science’. Such concerns about the validity of scientific claims have increased substantially in recent years as significant amounts of public and private money are invested in science and technology and their application is shown to have major social, environmental and economic consequences, sometimes at a global scale (e.g. the recent controversy over the integrity of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Thus, it is not only the technical integrity of science that matters, but also its public accountability.

A lack of accountability can result in innovations having too little impact as well as too much. For example, considerable proportions of official and charitable research funding for poor farmers in developing countries is devoted to simplistic technological fixes, which are unlikely to be adopted and/or retained by those farmers for whose sake the projects were ostensibly pursued, either because the innovations are inappropriate or because supporting institutional and physical infrastructures are not available. When the authorities try to tell the citizens what their agendas should be and ignore attempts by those citizens and communities to articulate their own agendas, official and corporate projects may be ineffective, and their may discredit the scientific community whose authority they are trying to invoke.

Science, technology and innovation today must meet a series of public expectations, not only about the technical characteristics of the products, but also about processes and purposes. The credibility of the FSA’s Public Dialogue Steering Committee and similar initiatives should be evaluated in the context of heightened demand for public accountability. But creating accountability practices is neither straightforward nor easy. It requires an analytic-deliberative process involving sustained public consultations, even in the production and assessment of scientific knowledge, as well as recognition that public consultation can improve the quality, adequacy and legitimacy of expert judgements. Most of all, it requires a critical and transparent assessment of the initial questions to be used in a consultation process on any ‘hot topic’ in science and technology policy, for it is in the framing of those questions that the terms of the engagement with the public are set.

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