Podium: We must support our GM food industry

From the presidential address by the chairman of Glaxo Wellcome to the British Festival of Science
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The Independent Culture
AT NO stage in world history has there been such great potential in science and technology to make an impact on the everyday lives of so many human beings. At no other time has the exploitation of scientific and technological innovation been so central to economic prosperity as it is today.

The UK has fallen behind in the struggle to compete not only with the developed countries but with an increasing number of developing countries. They recognise the critical importance of sustained and strategic investment in education and research and development, to succeed in the rapidly changing global economy.

Today knowledge is the engine of economic progress. The key attributes we must develop are the knowledge, skills and creativity needed to create high-productivity business processes and high-value goods and services. We must develop a strong, knowledge-driven economy. The US's ability to harness the potential of new technologies should be a lesson to us all.

It is government's role to create the right climate, in terms of fiscal, regulatory and intellectual property policies and incentives, to enable us to prosper through science. We look to government to create this climate, and to provide support for science and technology, including a clear and well-communicated strategy.

In the recent past, government messages and actions have not always been consistent. A good example of this is the refusal to approve the Wellcome Trust's development of a biotechnology park alongside Hinxton Hall, which is a world-leading facility for genomic research. The Wellcome Trust is consequently looking elsewhere, overseas including, to find alternative suitable sites. A chance to create the infrastructure for exploiting our leading-edge science may have been missed.

We must ensure that the fiscal and regulatory frameworks encourage and do not hinder the exploitation of new and emerging technologies, if we are not to fall further behind the US or be caught by Germany, which has created a flourishing biotechnology sector. I support the call by the Bioindustry Association to establish a National Biotechnology Centre to encourage, co-ordinate and focus our efforts in developing our industry.

We need a well-informed and supportive public. The public are the consumers, workforce, taxpayers and technology-users of today. They have every right to know about and understand scientific and technological developments. The recent GM foods affair has shown what happens when this is not achieved.

There is no doubt that GM foods, and other scientific and technological advances, do give rise to issues that are rightly the concern of society, and that the public has a right to ask questions and expect answers. However the debate must be a balanced one and in this case the potential benefits of GM technology have not been properly emphasised and thus are not understood by the public.

It is now possible that the outcome of the present anti-GM-food campaign will be detrimental to this country. It will lead to a failure to develop new UK companies based on the technology developed here, a loss of technical expertise as funding by international companies is withdrawn, and disadvantage for British agriculture. What is certain is that development of the technology will continue elsewhere, and its full potential and rewards realised by our competitors.

The scientific community has the primary responsibility for increasing the public's understanding of scientific matters. Scientists must be prepared to answer the questions and explain their work and its impact. Silence is interpreted as secrecy, provokes suspicion and fuels concern.

The creation of greater scientific literacy in the wider community must be seen as an important goal for the Government, educationists, the scientific community, industry and the media.

Science and technology are critical for our survival. There is no question that the UK has the potential to prosper through its exploitation, but much needs to be done.