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
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The Independent Culture
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.