Podium: Aaron Klug - Be rational about biotechnology

From a speech by the President of the Royal Society to the annual luncheon held at the Savoy Hotel, London

LET ME begin with a story. A man in a ship sees a radar signal coming from straight in front. He picks up the radio and says: "You are on a collision course. Please change your direction." Back comes the reply: "No, you change." So he tries again: "This is a naval vessel. I must insist that you change your course." And he gets the same reply: "No, you change." With disaster looming, he decides to pull out all the stops: "I am in command of an aircraft carrier, and I am sailing with a full escort. I order you to change your course." Unruffled comes the reply: "And I am a lighthouse keeper. Your move."

The big issues in science can be likened to the lighthouse, as Richard Nixon found when he tried to cap President Kennedy's moon landing with his own campaign against cancer in the Seventies.

The problems of sending a man to the moon could be overcome - all the principles were known, and the appropriate technology was at hand or could be developed. In the case of cancer, there was just not enough known of the basic biology to devise paths to a cure. You cannot by sheer force, by direct onslaught, compel scientific truths to reveal themselves. We have learnt more about cancer from indirect basic research on animal viruses and from studies of how normal cells are programmed to divide. The major insights in science come from people who have the patience to develop an intimate understanding of a particular problem.

New science disrupts, and really good new science disrupts a good deal.

A hundred years ago, biotechnology was limited to the traditional arts of brewing and baking - fermentation technology. Less than 50 years ago, Watson and Crick unravelled the structure of DNA. Today, you could entertain yourself by asking the person next to you what is the first thought that comes into his mind in response to the word "biotechnology."

The possibilities include DNA fingerprinting, cloning, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), cross-fertilisation, rapid economic growth, patenting of life forms, aggressive multinationals, regulation - to name but a few. And that's without mentioning Frankenstein's monster!

The Royal Society has been actively involved in developing policy in this area since the days of the 1981 Spens report on biotechnology. We see it very much as our duty to follow all developments, to foresee them if at all possible, and to disseminate them to the public - particularly the informed public - to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, and also to the Government.

It was in this context that last September we published a statement on genetically modified plants for food use. It is being used as a source document by the Government.

The use of GMOs has the potential to offer real benefits in agricultural practice, food quality and health, although there are many aspects of the technology that require further research and monitoring. We need a national and well-informed debate on the subject.

In view of the many misleading comments in the last week or two we are now setting up an expert group to review allegations that allergenic and toxic problems may arise in GM plants. Premature, partial or selective release, or misinterpretation of unsubstantiated research, only serves to mislead the general public in a complex area.

Rational debate based upon rigorously reviewed data is essential. There is a big difference between legitimate concern and scaremongering.

I think that the Prime Minister and the Government are right in their determination not to be bullied into abandoning GMOs by emotion and fears, but are steadily trying to find out the facts by trials and experiments.

The Government is currently full of biotechnology initiatives. The DTI has started co-ordinating a wide-ranging consultation on the biosciences that seeks to canvass public opinion. If this catches on, it could mark a turning-point for the way the "public" engages with the many scientific aspects of public policy.

Which brings us back to the naval commander and the lighthouse keeper. All of us must learn to interpret the various signals on our radar screens. In this extended metaphor, I would include public opinion as a lighthouse. It is possible to negotiate with lighthouse keepers, but only if you bother to understand where they are coming from.

We now live happily with many things that were once abhorrent to public opinion. But there is nothing inevitable in that. If you misjudge the lighthouse, you will run aground. If you get it right, society will definitely be enriched.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor