Helen Wallace objects to influence of commercial interests
With reference Derek Burke’s ‘Why can’t we make a decision about the genetic modification of foods and crops?’ (People & Science, December 2010): I resigned from last year’s GM dialogue not, as he claims, because I have a ‘non-negotiable position’, but because the process was corrupted by commercial interests before it even started.
A confidential bid document to win the contract to run the engagement exercise, submitted by the polling company Ipsos MORI, acknowledged the sensitivity of the initiative. The bidding document stated that the company worked on behalf of a ‘multinational agro-chemical and seed company’ and warned: ‘Campaign organisations who may feel that the “battle” was won in 2003 could decide to try and hijack the process to ensure GM food does not get a chance to be reintroduced into the UK.’ What kind of dialogue is that?
Independent weighing of the evidence, as Burke suggests, can shed some light; for example, on GM pest-resistant (Bt) cotton.1 However, many scientific uncertainties will remain and priorities and values will also differ. Does Burke think people should just eat what he tells them to eat, or should they have a say? Britain did make a choice about GM crops and foods: he just doesn’t like that choice.
US farmers planting herbicide tolerant GM crops are now facing expensive seed price hikes and using more and more herbicides and even manual labour as herbicide-tolerant superweeds spread across the US. Poor farmers in the same situation would be locked into a cycle of poverty which could destroy them and their families. Pesticide-resistance is also developing to Bt crops. Why have decades of investment been made in a technology that is unsustainable and less effective than non-GM approaches at delivering much-needed complex traits such as drought-tolerance and increased yield? 2
Far from abandoning debate, I think we need to broaden it to ask: what should we be investing in to obtain a better future?
1 Undying promise: agricultural biotechnology’s pro-poor narrative, ten years on. STEPS Centre Working Paper 15 .
2 Bioscience for Life? GeneWatch UK Report . April 2010.
More than mother-friendly, argue Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre Moreau
We want to take issue with Elaine Westwick’s article in December’s People and Science (where she discussed how to retain women in scientific careers. She suggested that it should be easier for women to resign from and return to scientific work whenever they feel works for them. Women could then bring their scientific expertise to their mothering and perhaps science too could benefit from the ‘wider perspective’ these women returners would bring.
We agree that it needs to be made easier for men and women to leave and return to scientific work. However, our research on online representations of women in science, engineering and technology, like that by the Invisible Witnesses team (also included in the December issue), shows that making science woman-friendly goes way beyond making it mother-friendly. There should be changes to the social organisation of child and elder-care, and particularly, to the assumption, that Elaine partly perpetuates, that care is and should remain primarily women’s work. Rather than asking ‘can women out of science be good for society?’, as Elaine does, we should ask ‘what are the barriers that hinder women’s full participation in science and men’s in care-work?’ Otherwise, we risk reinforcing the status quo in which women are positioned as nurturers and transmitters and teachers of knowledge, and men as main breadwinners and creators and producers of knowledge.
We found that men dominate online coverage of science and technology. The few images of women scientists tend to the traditional, using women as decoration, marginalising them and/or linking them with family life and, of course, care. When the web authors we interviewed explained this in terms of women’s role in childbirth and childcare, they effectively absolved themselves from having to do anything to change these stereotypical portrayals; they even absolved science from having to change its working practices. We worry that Elaine’s article may do the same.