President’s update

Thank you to Joan Leach for the President’s update.

This month, I participated in a debate at the RiAus on genetic modification (sponsored by the Waite Research Institute at Uni Adelaide)—not whether we should be doing it or its dangers or potentials—but how we should carry out conversations about it in public. During the course of the debate, I was reminded that the first Australian consensus conference on gene technology in the food chain was held 15 years ago. Do you remember what you thought of GM in 1999? It also reminded me that I was living in London at the time and that the GM tomato controversy was raging in the supermarket aisles, food-borne illness from listeria was stoking anxiety and Mad Cow was around the corner. The debate in Adelaide was an interesting indication of how far we’ve come and, well, how far we need to go.

The affirmative team was arguing “The GM debate should only be about the science” and the team was staffed with eminent Australian scientists working on various forms of GM.  They tried to argue that scientists should stay out of public debate and leave it to the professionals—science communicators. They tried, but couldn’t really do it with a straight face. Every member of that team had worked with a science communicator, a few had media training from ASC members, and all reflected that effective science communication was a real partnership  between science and communicators. That’s a fair move from 1999.  For the debate, I was on the negative team arguing, of course, “The GM debate should NOT only be about the science.” It’s a position I believe as a communicator and something we probably share in the ASC community. Whether or not you like or loathe GM, various values, legal intuitions, views on social justice, are going to come into the conversation and they should.

What was perplexing to me, though, is that because I was arguing to pay attention to various values and the context of science, some people in the audience assumed I was anti-GM or assumed that I thought values should always trump the science in conversation. Here’s where we still have some way to go, then. It still seems that there is a assumption that “social” values are at odds with “science” and that “social” and “science” are antonyms. They are not. Scientists have values, too. And, there are social contexts where science trumps everything else. So, creating a context where values can be discussed openly, even when those values are about scientific things, still seems elusive.

Unbelievably, it’s time for the ASC AGM. We’re planning to have it in Canberra on 5 December. If you can’t get to our nation’s capital for this event, ASC is planning to stream proceedings so consider putting a ‘save the date’ in your diary and checking in on the AGM online.  As always, if there are issues you’d like to discuss, drop me a line.

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