ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
 

Date:  7 March 2001

MARY SHELLEY,  GALILEO,  PROF  STOTT & FLIGHTS  OF  FANCY

ngin comment:  Now here's an interesting thing.  NGIN has recently been in correspondence with Prof Philip Stott, chair of the upcoming US embassy-sponsored 'Seeds of Opportunity' conference.  We asked him why he focused so greatly, in terms of his 'post-modernist' analysis, on what he terms 'eco-hype' and the 'mythmaking' of environmentalists rather than, say, 'bio-hype' and 'sound science' mythmaking.  Prof Stott responded as
follows:

    'Dear Jonathan,

    I hope I  try  to deconstruct all types of language, from the 'biohype' to the 'ecohype'!
    As ever,
    Philip '

In the light of that, we asked Prof Stott where we might see his deconstruction of 'bio-hype' etc., to which he replied:

    'Here is one of my more balanced pieces:- http://www.acu.ac.uk/yearbook/144-stott.html

We reproduce this piece below.  What's particularly interesting about it is that it is stuffed to the gills with 'bio-hype'!

Although proponents of agbiotech make near-miraculous claims for the technology, it is clearly too early in evidential terms to know what benefits it may, if persisted with, actually deliver and at what cost.

It may, in fact, prove a complete dud!  As yet, the jury is out since there is simply no way of knowing with any scientific certainty.  In this article, however, Prof Stott feels able to tell us:

    "We are truly standing on a great peak and a new country lies at our feet."

    "The first century of the new millennium will inexorably be 'The Age of
       Biotechnology', both in medicine and agriculture."

     Genetic engineering is the "finest of all human adaptations".

The only question we have to answer is:  "Should biotechnology spread its wings and
       fly freely."

Not forgetting that it is, "an advance vital for human development" and indeed, "essential for human survival".

These claims are all treated as self-evident. No real evidence is brought forward to support any of them - beyond a claim about 'golden' rice which we will come to.

It hardly requires 'deconstruction' to realise that, to adapt Stott's linguistic style, we are dealing here with the most naive techno-utopian mythmaking.

But the triumphalist narrative isn't the only aspect of what Prof Stott has to say that is disturbing. According to Stott:

    "For me the saddest thing of all in this contemporary battle has been that first
      casualty of all wars, honesty. The attack on biotechnology in agriculture has
      been the fiercest and it has been characterized by the willful misuse of both
      'science' and information."

What, however, characterizes the following statement? -:

    "Swiss researchers who are enhancing rice genetically to provide enough
      beta-carotene to satisfy the daily requirements for Vitamin A in as little as
      300g of cooked rice per day speak movingly of their vision for a better world...
      As a university scientist, I must defend such progress to the hilt against all the
      unreason in the world."

Most people reading this are likely to assume that the delivery of "enough beta-carotene to satisfy the daily requirements for Vitamin A in as little as 300g of cooked rice per day" has been accomplished. The truth, of course, is very different. Even Potrykus, the inventor of golden rice, has estimated that golden rice cmay only deliver 20% of the Vit A required, or at best 40%. Others who have analysed the figures think it is likely to be far less, say 8% or less.

The reality, as Allison Yates, director of the Food and Nutrition Board, recently told the St Louis Post-Dispatch, is that "no one really knows" the full extent of the short fall because there are many variables and at this point there are only a handful of relevant studies.
('Bioengineered rice loses glow as vitamin A source', March 4, 2001)
[http://www.postnet.com/postnet/stories.nsf/ByDocID/17E806A1B073326586256A05003E9A7B]

We suspect that Prof Stott perhaps thought this was one of his "more balanced" pieces because it contains statements like "the independent university researcher has to be like Caesar's wife, always above suspicion".  What he fails to explore, however, is the massive extent to which this is not the case with the bio-sciences, as the Report of the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology recently made clear. [see also: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/283.htm]

In conclusion, Prof Stott claims to "deconstruct all types of language" but seems incapable of deconstructing his own, engaging in quasi-religious "bio-hype" and giving us a large serving of "golden rice hype" to go with it, while at the same time castigating "the willful misuse of both 'science' and information".

Prof Stott will, as chairman of the Seeds of Opportunity conference, be in charge of ensuring the balance and fairness of the proceedings.  Can one think of a more suitable choice?
*  *  *
Biotechnology: Mary Shelley or Galileo?

Philip Stott is Professor of Biogeography at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London. He is also Editor of the internationally renowned Journal of Biogeography.
 
The first century of the new millennium will inexorably be 'The Age of Biotechnology', both in medicine and agriculture. "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material" wrote
James Watson and Francis Crick in the conclusion to their now legendary paper, 'A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid', published in Nature in April, 1953.

Since this annus mirabilis, scientists have learnt how to cut DNA, how to change it, and how to paste it together again, and how to transfer it from one organism to another. They have devised
methods to measure it, to name it, and to sequence, or map, it.

By 1995, the non-infectious Rd type of the bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, was the first true organism to have its full genetic alphabet revealed. This was quickly followed, in 1997, by commercial yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the first organism with nuclear membranes (eukaryote) to be sequenced, and, in 1998, by the first free-living organism, a tiny worm,
Caenorhabditis elegans.

And the year 2000 will see that Holy Grail of the human genome, our very own alphabet of life, spelt out for us all to read.

The spectre of Shelley

We are truly standing on a great peak and a new country lies at our feet. But not everyone wants to explore this realm of adventure, or to face up to the scientific, moral, and philosophical challenges that must be encountered on the pilgrimage.

They fear human hubris; they worry that Homo sapiens is tampering with the work of the gods and that our fall will be terrible. They see Frankenstein emerging from the opium-crazed ideas of Mary Shelley into their very own reality. They are desperate to cabin, crib, and confine the new science, like Galileo in his little house at Arcetri on the steep path beyond the walls of Florence. They seek an imprimatur on research and application and direct hate against those who wish to publish abroad all that is being learnt. As Galileo wrote in the preface to his Two New Sciences published in Holland in June 1638: "For it is you who have thought to increase my fame by having these works spread their wings freely under an open sky, when it appeared to me that my reputation must surely remain confined within narrower spaces."

Should biotechnology spread its wings and fly freely under an open sky? And what should be the role of an independent university scientist at this critical moment when the battle lines seem to have been drawn between those who fear the new technologies and those who wish to develop them for the future of humanity? Between those who read the grand narrative of Mary Shelley and those the story of Galileo, the narrative of the scientist as hero, ultimately vindicated?

Morality and Honesty

For me the saddest thing of all in this contemporary battle has been that first casualty of all wars, honesty. The attack on biotechnology in agriculture has been the fiercest and it has been characterized by the willful misuse of both 'science' and information.

The abuse of the original study on Bt corn pollen and the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in America was one of the worst examples. Despite carefully worded caveats entered by the scientists involved, and the fact that the study was a laboratory-based experiment which bore little relationship to field ecology, a myth was blazoned across the world that Bt corn would kill off, not only all Monarch butterflies, but most other insects as well. The detailed scientific rebuttals that followed inevitably fell by the wayside, ignored by a sensation-seeking media.

Of course, scientists themselves were partly to blame. They had ignored public relations and had forgotten that they must always inform and share their progress in a democratizing world. The first task of any independent university researcher, therefore, has to be to remind all colleagues, in both the private and the government sectors, of their ultimate responsibility to the public and to think carefully how they can best express complex scientific ideas to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and fear. The semiotics of a phrase such as the 'terminator gene' was sheer folly.

Secondly, university researchers must always value and defend their own freedom and independence, even when funded by government or industry; this is surely a cornerstone of any science democracy. The more biotechnology developments are tested by independent sources, the more they will have legitimacy. One of the great conundrums in university financing remains precisely how to fund great scientific advances without corruption of truth and honesty; the independent university researcher has to be like Caesar's wife, always above suspicion.

Irrationality

But, thirdly, independent university scientists also have a moral duty to speak out against irrationality and misinformation, especially when this might endanger the future of an advance vital for human development. For many extreme environmental groups, the enemy is science and knowledge itself; it is 'global capitalism', symbolized by America and companies like Monsanto. In this narrative, all biotechnology scientists are seen as 'greedy' and 'rapacious', the lackeys of the
whole process of globalisation.

The reality is starkly different. Thousands who work in the biotechnology industry, in Cuba, Mexico, India, China, as well as in the  North, possess the highest ethics and work tirelessly because they  personally believe, and know, that what they are doing will ultimately help people.

Swiss researchers who are enhancing rice genetically to provide enough beta-carotene to satisfy the daily requirements for Vitamin A in as little as 300g of cooked rice per day speak movingly of
their vision for a better world. They have also increased iron levels in the same plant, all of which was accomplished by placing seven new genes into a single strain of rice. Vitamin A deficiency (affecting some 400 million people) and iron deficiency (3.7 billion people) are two of the
most serious nutritional problems in the developing world. As a university scientist, I must defend such progress to the hilt against all the unreason in the world.

The self-indulgent appropriation of 'morality' by non-accountable environmentalist organizations is in the end far more dangerous than any biotechnological development. The trashing of experiments designed to learn the truth is a crime against both reason and progress, and it is utterly unacceptable in a country like the United Kingdom where there is a free vote, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and a relatively free press.

Progress with safety

The task of the independent university researcher is thus to seek progress, but with safety. It is to act always as a curb on misinformation and unreason, whatever their source. Biotech crops are
already grown around the world. Argentina, for example, has a larger acreage than the United States of America, and India has just ratified the use of Bt cotton.

Our prime task is surely to ensure that we reap the benefits of this finest of all human adaptations whilst minimizing the risks. Boiling a kettle is a dangerous task; yet it produces that refreshing cup of tea. Biotechnology is no different.

Outright opposition to biotechnology is untenable and must be defeated. Humans have only managed to survive pests and diseases, environmental change and population growth, through their manipulation of crop genetics, from the very first moment, some 10,000 years ago, when an
early farmer selected the larger plant and crossbred it with another better-tasting variety. Modern biotechnology is the next vital step to  help us to carry on defeating such Malthusian pressures. And, because of its inherent precision, it may even be safer than in the past because traditional crossbreeding could lead to up to 15 per cent of the genome being transferred.

The key role of the academic is thus to unravel the current confusion surrounding biotechnology, especially in agriculture - that ultimate need for biotechnology; the political control over biotechnology; the legal status of genetic resources and modification; and, the current politics of world food distribution. By questioning the first so hysterically - recent ecohype - the other key questions are often lost in the miasma. Yet they are far more important issues which should be
addressed in the full knowledge that biotechnology is essential for human survival in the face of growth and constant change and that Galileo will fly "freely under an open sky".
 
 

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