Britain could lose out because of 'anti-science' fears, warns Blair

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Tony Blair today warned that "anti-science" attitudes could rob Britain of the huge benefits of new cutting-edge research and technology.

Tony Blair today warned that "anti-science" attitudes could rob Britain of the huge benefits of new cutting-edge research and technology.

He told the European Bioscience Conference in London that there were "legitimate concerns" about new technologies such as genetically modified foods, but these should not prevent scientists carrying out research in these areas.

"Blackmail and intimidation" by protesters who tried to wreck research projects would not be tolerated, he said: "There is a danger, almost unintentionally, that we become anti-science.

"Our conviction about what is natural or right should not inhibit the role of science in discovering the truth - rather it should inform our judgment about the implications and consequences of the truth science uncovers."

He said that developments in biotechnology, which could see cures for killer diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, depended upon research being able to take place.

"Some times it is controversial, as with GM crops or animal testing. Such research is rightly strictly regulated.

"But this Government will not tolerate blackmail, even physical assault, by those who oppose it," he said.

"To do so would be to give in to intimidation. To stand by as a successful British science once more ends up being manufactured abroad."

He said he had an "open mind" on GM foods and accepted there were legitimate concerns, but added: "To make heroes of people who are preventing basic scientific research taking place is wrong. It is to substitute aggression for argument."

Mr Blair said that people had to recognise that in controversial areas such as stem cell research there could be "more than one morally acceptable outcome".

While some people were opposed to all forms of embryo research on ethical grounds, there also had to be a recognition that when stem cell research had the huge potential to improve the quality of lives of those suffering from disease there were also strong ethical arguments in favour of it going ahead.

There needed to be a "far more considered rational dialogue" between scientists and the public if people were to accept the need for continuing research and development, Mr Blair said.

Apart from the benefits in terms of tackling disease, biotechnology also offered the prospect of massive economic and commercial gains for Britain.

By 2005 the European biotechnology market was expected to be worth 100 billion dollars and employing up to three million people.

While British companies were in the lead in Europe other countries such as Germany were catching up fast.

"Biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge economy and I want Britain to become its European hub," Mr Blair said.

"I want to make it clear we don't intend to let our leadership fall behind and are prepared to back that commitment with investment."

Friends of the Earth said Mr Blair needed to consider the impact of biotechnology, especially genetically modified foods, on the environment.

Senior real food campaigner Pete Riley said: "The Government has gone to great lengths in the past to support the development of GM crops - against the wishes of the majority of people in this country.

"They need to be sure of what they are doing, and with this new and untested technology they are putting all their eggs in one basket."

But Mr Riley stressed that Friends of the Earth was not "anti-science" and welcomed developments in medicine and other biotechnology fields.

"We are pro-science, but what concerns us on the food front is that we do not regard science as sufficiently well advanced to make decisions on the future of farming.

"We must not repeat the mistakes of the past, where all-out food production has been at the expense of water quality, wildlife and the landscape.

"Unless the Prime Minister realises that, he will make a big mistake."