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24/04/2014

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Engagement: Actual or accredited?

Tracey Brown reflects on the Rothamsted protests.

Researchers working on genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted decided to respond publicly to a threat to destroy their research earlier this year. They faced a crunch point. Readers will know that activists organised an event to uproot their experimental plot in May.

Tracey Brown reflects on the Rothamsted protests.

Researchers working on genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted decided to respond publicly to a threat to destroy their research earlier this year. They faced a crunch point. Readers will know that activists organised an event to uproot their experimental plot in May.

Rothamsted’s approach
You may not know that Rothamsted’s efforts reached further back. Its head, Maurice Moloney, had written an open letter inviting the activists to talk when they announced their plans. Before that, environmental groups, farmers and local residents had been in discussions about the work. And before that, there had been a consultation as part of the trial’s approval by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which led to alterations in the trial design. And before that, Rothamsted had looked at the research proposals in the light of public opinions about commercial control, benefitting the environment and reducing chemicals, and felt it met these well.

Still facing threats, the researchers then pressed for discussion rather than destruction in every way they could – a letter, video appeal, publicity, discussions in the press and on TV. The public and commentators responded with support. Local people wrote to the protest group called Take the Flour Back. Thousands posted comments on a petition, expressing different views about GM but unanimous support for the research.

Lively tumble
Questions fired in all directions, about insects, the food chain, pollination, open source material, conventional breeding and pesticide sprays, and from all quarters: ‘artist’, ‘farm-hand’, ‘carer’, ‘astrophysics lecturer’, ‘air-traffic controller’. The researchers, helped by people from other institutes, got involved in discussing them. I and many others found ourselves relaying email enquiries, twitter debates, podcasts and other interrogations.

Months later, we are still working through correspondence. The researchers, BBSRC and others are too. It was a lively tumble of public discussion, set by what people wanted to talk about, often enthusiastically, sometimes crossly, and frequently at the weekend. The only polarisation was against vandalism and that’s fair enough.

Rigidity bad
But goodness would you look at the sniping from officials! ‘Why are you doing this?’ BIS officials asked. ‘You risk putting back GM discussion by 10 years’, Sciencewise told Rothamsted. (How far is that? everyone wondered.) Publicity risks building the demonstration. It risks building a counter-demonstration. It could backfire. If the threat of vandalism is public, it could put off international investors. Okay the researchers have handled it well, but keep them away from people on the day!
It was as though official support of public engagement is limited to activities fully planned, and approved by civil servants. Some academic consultancies don’t seem to like things that aren’t in the schedule either. You could be forgiven for thinking that science communication is seen as this potent tool that must be overseen by people whom government has accredited. No room for risky unplanned discussion here.

Messiness good
Discussion – the kind that actual people want to have – is unplanned, messy, contradictory, often inconvenient. But if our aim is to strengthen civil society and engage people then all of that comes too and it’s a sign of success. Yes it does mean taking risks and not being in control. But why would we want a petrified discussion, locked in interminable strategy meetings and so afraid of getting it wrong that nothing is learned or gained? It is daunting enough for researchers to go out and debate their research without also having to contemplate a gang of people on the sidelines waiting to write them up in a patronising case study.

Instead we should welcome the messiness and opportunity to learn what goes on when you risk actual public discussion, rather than the splendid isolation of accredited engagement that disappears up its own correctness.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is the Director of Sense About Science
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