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Letter to the Editor

[ UniNews Vol. 13, No. 23  13 - 27 December 2004 ]

Simon Batterbury

Professor Adrienne Clarke’s piece on the adoption of scientific innovations [UniNews, 29 Nov-13 Dec] is helpful in reminding academics of the importance of disseminating their knowledge. In particular, she suggests “scientists” (who, she argues, can offer “fact based views”) who endeavour to do this are thwarted by so-called “activists”, some of whom operate with “belief systems that have no factual base”.

This raises several questions. Firstly, is there really such a stark division between scientist and activist? Activists are present in university science departments, and NGOs employ good scientists. The labels are unhelpful. Secondly, she claims that “activists” handle the media and the public better, shutting out scientific views. This seems unlikely given the present ownership of the Australian media – but that aside, the categories are again problematic.

Citizens (including activists and scientists) protest about science, particularly corporate and military “innovations” like missiles, cigarettes, and flawed drugs. They also support some new technologies. These struggles are well-informed and often employ scientific, as well as ethical reasoning. Third, Clarke’s view that “activists” (again un-named) persuaded famine-stricken African nations not to accept genetically modified food aid in 2002, and that they “would rather have the mothers watch their children die of starvation than let them eat food that was routinely accepted in developed countries” is misleading. “Grain dumping” was almost certainly at play here, scientific risk assessment wasn’t done in-country, and the grain was rejected by some poor farmers and their leaders (not just by governments) for very sensible reasons.

This last issue is not just about crop yields but the politics of that yield. Plant breeding has rarely succeeded in Africa (witness the decline of the African millet program at ICRISAT). Local crop varieties are adapted to strenuous conditions and labour and capital shortages. Livelihood systems incorporate them in very complex decision-making environments. As Paul Richards has famously argued, supporting these efforts through broad-based and participatory development, rather than imperiling them through GMOs and commercial food imports, would seem to be a more appropriate role for academics and scientists.

Again, we should be grateful for Clarke’s call to raise the profile of good scientific work – especially in the light of the debates (for example) over the teaching of evolution and creationism in American schools, and the widespread campaigns to deny anthropogenic global warming. But we must not patronise, by adopting an “us” and “them” language. This leads too easily to the position that scientists know the “truth” about GMOs or nuclear energy (two of the most controversial issues facing modern society), and citizens, and unscientific “activists”, do not.

Simon Batterbury
Lecturer, Department of Geography, School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies

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