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Lessons in Biopolitics
- Shane Morris, Nature Biotechnology 27, 602 - 604 (2009)
Stefan Rauschen's personal account of genetically modified (GM) plant research in Germany is a worrisome outcome of what is termed 'biopolitics'. GM crop biopolitics can be defined as the process of political risk management, whereby policy makers base their decisions-for instance, whether a given crop harbors potential risks for human health or the environment-on more than just the scientific evidence.
Biopolitical impacts on European Union (EU; Brussels) policy and its regulatory instruments are not new. Indeed, it can be argued that the elaboration of GM crop policy within the EU has significantly relied on policy narratives driven by discourses and epistemic communities that deliberately disregard evidence generated by the scientific community. These narratives, which simplify complex situations, are often used by policy makers to guide their decision-making. This decision-making occurs at the science-policy interface where there are undeniable tensions in the relationship between scientific evidence, regulation and political decision-making7. Although no single model for the science-policy interface exists, a few points that scientists should remember include the following:
* Availability of information does not necessarily translate into policy action; scientific information must also be received, believed, found relevant and useful to the appropriate decision makers. Policy makers must subsequently make the choice to translate the scientific information into action, as well as have the capacity to do so.
* Although scientists are familiar with the concepts of technical risk and uncertainty in a complex world, the public and policy makers often seek certainty and deterministic solutions. Political decision makers tend to want absolutes and certainty (e.g., the desire for the scientifically nonsensical terms '100% safe' or 'risk free'). An example of this is the EU Commission's publicly funded marketing campaign for organic food that directly states organic farming is "good for you." This campaign has preprepared radio advertisements, TV commercials and glossy print flyers but is very short on scientific evidence (http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/toolbox/messages-slogans_en) , as not all organic food is good for you (e.g., organic ice cream or recalled organic product).
* In today's political world, the abundance of unbounded scientific information or data creates at the same time knowledge deficits, as it becomes increasingly difficult to sort and translate the surplus of available science information into politically organized conduct .
* The idea that scientific data are entered into a risk assessment that is free, or nearly free, of policy considerations is considered beyond the realm of possibility . The reality seems that such policy considerations are often biopolitical, and easily based on a fear of negative political fallout or media coverage.
* Political hazards are a real and tangible concern. At the GM crop science-policy interface, the risks of political fallout are now considered alongside the other risk areas of health, environmental, economic and ethical risk. With relative ease, such political hazards can be amplified by anti-GM technology groups and business sectors that commercially benefit from marketing strategies that emphasize 'GM-free' products and practices, such as the organic farming industry and its associated investment community.
In fact, the reason why the EU ignores its own policy on the precautionary principle and focuses its GM regulations so narrowly on the process of genetic engineering rather than on the actual product is predominantly driven by the effort to manage political risks relating to the manufactured GM stigma. This has ultimately led to an unsustainable regulatory framework that is currently facing severe limitations in its ability to regulate new and equivalent risks posed by other, sensu stricto non-GM-based, approaches that can elicit similar effects, varieties and products.
Such approaches include inter alia, the selection of spontaneous mutants (sports); classical chemical and radiation-induced mutagenesis; selection of somaclonal variants; interspecific hybridization, somatic hybridization and cybridization; mutagenesis owing to naturally occurring mobile DNA elements (transposons); novel targeted mutagenesis approaches, including TILLING, zinc-finger nuclease (ZFN) strategies and allele replacement via homologous recombination; heritable epigenetic modifications, such as gene silencing; grafting of non-GM components on genetically modified rootstock and cisgenesis.
Although many politicians show little hesitance in entering the realm of scientific discourse, scientists are traditionally more reluctant to enter the policy arena. This may be due to the old paradigm that 'science and policy should never interact' and that the relationship between technical expertise and policy-making should be conceptualized as a linear conformity between expert knowledge and policy decision. Even so, a new paradigm is needed based on the notion that 'science and policy do and should meet' and the state and scientists need to recognize that science and policy making are two arenas that are not "cognitively and culturally distinct" but are "engaged in processes of constant exchange and mutual stabilization".
Policy does not change on its own; it is engineered. Similar to genetic transformation, there are 'promoters' (e.g., nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and industry) and 'vectors' (e.g., media) that are used to obtain the desired and stable policy 'expression'. As a result, scientists should speak 'truth' (that is, best available evidence) to power, even if that power is professional, political, the media or an aggressive NGO. This, of course, comes at a price.
As Rauschens outlines, a scientist's reputation quickly becomes a target when he confronts GM mis- or disinformation. In my own case, speaking up as a public servant scientist who only has ever accepted public funds led to letters to my employer, intimidating e-mails, defamation (and retractions), comments regarding my wife on an anti-GM website and even a British 9/11 conspiracy theorist politician using the protection of Parliamentary privilege to make false statements to which one has no recourse. These are the daily trials and tribulations that the average politician faces and, though distasteful to most scientists, are ultimately short lived with no real impact. In fact, one only needs a thick skin, knowledge that this is the political norm and an understanding that your actions are legitimate because sense and sensibility will not prevail on their own.
If the science community's goal is to effectively apply scientific evidence and the scientific process to solving global problems, we need to not only recognize that it cannot be an insular polity but also realize those scientists who enter the world of public policy, government, law, and so forth are not deserting science. Moreover, the next generation of scientists needs to be better prepared for realpolitik biopolitics by including policy course work, case studies and government and/or political work experience in formal science training.
In the meantime, EU biotech scientists would do worse than to remember Leó Szilárd's quote: "When a scientist says something, his colleagues must ask themselves only whether it is true. When a politician says something, his colleagues must first of all ask, 'Why does he say it?'"
(for refs - see orginal paper - CSP)
(Genetics and Biotechnology Laboratory, Department of Biochemistry, University College Cork, Ireland. e-mail: email@example.com)