Thursday, 10 May 2012

Lessons from controversy: organisational learning and GM

After a considerable period on the back burner, the GM debate in the UK hotted up last week as Sense about Science released their 'Don't destroy research' appeal in response to the threatened 'Take the flour back' mass action to destroy a field of genetically modified wheat being trialled by Rothamsted Research. 'Don't destroy research' issued an appeal from scientists emphasising the importance of retaining the integrity of scientific research, implicitly casting the protesters as irrational and 'anti-science'. So far so predictable. What is unusual and perhaps novel about the 'Don't destroy research' appeal is that they also invited the protesters into dialogue with them, in the hope of averting the action planned for 27th May.

Given my research focus on organisational learning - including adaptiveness and responsiveness to outside events - this development struck me as potential evidence of exactly that. What if after decades of intractable polarised debate key organisations and groups have begun to learn about the nature of debate, the publics they are engaging with, and the issues they see themselves addressing through their research? Whether they'd like to admit it or not, science organisations have been forced to change and adapt - which could be taken as learning - in response to the actions of radical protest groups like 'Take the flour back'. In Sheila Jasanoff's new edited collection, Rob Doubleday and Brian Wynne write about such long-term trends of learning with regards to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which has gradually reframed the issue of GM food in response to the spaces and opportunities created by the external debate. The BBSRC has since begun to more formally and regularly engage with diverse stakeholders and publics as part of its organisational routines. This is what critical public engagement theorists would refer to as the influence of 'uninvited' or informal spaces of public participation. Whilst the public debate around GM has often been polarised, antagonistic, and filled with bad science - on both sides - it has also operated to widen the arena of concern. GM has been transformed from a technical issue about the manipulation of genes under a microscope, to a broader issue: with large economic consequences for states and businesses; with moral ramifications around the power of large companies, the right of humans to 'play God' and the legacy left to future generations; and which encompasses broader scientific questions which might involve field ecologists, health professionals, or even social scientists.

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So Sense about Science's attempt at initiating dialogue is a significant, if small, step, showing evidence of learning about how to engage effectively with protesters, how to communicate science, and even about how to conceptualise the role of GM crops. This recent post on the Guardian environment blog saw the dialogue as an important and positive opportunity to move the debate on. In this post on the Sciencewise blog Sir Roland Jackson paints a less positive picture of these developments. He sees the recent attempts at dialogue as too little too late, and notes that the mood is still agressive and confrontational. Through the lens of organisational learning I view this development as evidence of instrumental learning - in the sense that it represents an incremental change in procedures and approach rather than a redefinition of the problem or the creation of new organisational mechanisms, but also because the push for dialogue still seeks only to fulfil the strategic interests of Sense about Science and GM researchers. They aren't offering to abandon or significantly change the field trials as the result of the dialogue; the assumption is rather that the protesters will come to understand the scientists' point of view and see the enterprise as a legitimate one following the dialogue. Given the emotive and entrenched nature of the debate here this assumption appears rather optimistic. Furthermore the protesters are likely to recognise that they have little to gain from engaging in dialogue and could be offended that the GM researchers have assumed that their opposition is fuelled by a deficit of understanding - nobody likes to be told that they're stupid - rather than by differing values and viewpoints.

But there are obvious explanations for this lack of learning. If you are somebody who has spent your whole professional career working on GM research, has an in-depth understanding of the science behind it, and has spent long hours imagining the societal benefits and social progress possible as a result of this new technology, it would be difficult to do anything but scoff at a campaign group which uses slogans such as 'Cow genes on toast anyone?' And you would be understandably very angry if they threatened to destroy several years worth of your research. But much social science research on the GM public debate has unearthed a deeper layer of concerns about trust for authorities making proclamations about the safety of foodstuffs - especially following the BSE controversy of the late 1990s - and unease about the lack of public involvement in any stage of the development of new technologies, which often underlie such rhetoric. So if we view seemingly 'unscientific' and emotive statements about the danger of GM, such as the label 'Frankenfoods', as a reflection of these deeper problems related to trust and inclusion, then a response which demonises protesters and dismisses their arguments is likely only to confound their feelings of exclusion and fuel the impression that science organisations are not willing to engage with public concerns.

Whilst both admirable and potentially innovative, Sense about Science's response to the protesters reflects several dominant assumptions about science and its role within society, which have narrowed opportunities for reflection and deeper learning. The first assumption is that issues of science can be neatly separated from issues of politics (see Martin's post below). This leads the organisations to assume that GM research can be defended using purely scientific arguments and also to dismiss non-scientific arguments are irrational - it is almost as if they believe protesters have no right to be a part of the debate because of their lack of scientific competence. This attitude fails to recognise that the GM issue became political/politicized in the UK more than a decade ago when the Government strongly supported the technology, prompting a high profile public debate. Furthermore, decisions involving GM are perhaps inherently political as they concern the food system and require us to make subjective judgements about arrangements for growing, distribution, etc. of food in the future. Therefore political concerns related to GM cannot simply be dealt with 'downstream' of scientific concerns.

The second assumption is that scientific progress necessarily and unproblematically leads to societal progress. This assumption might hold up if we think about mobile phones or advances in medical science, but many scientific developments have had highly ambivalent societal consequences, for example cars, the internet, and many miltary technologies. In the case of a technology like the atom bomb you could even argue that scientific and societal advance are working in completely opposite directions. Related to this assumption Brian Wynne writes that science and policy organisations have "failed to recognise the ever-increasing demands which are being imposed on public credulity by science as assumed public authority"; rather the license to operate is as assumed to be pre-given. GM undoubtedly represents impressive advances in the field of genetics and biotechnology, but that does not necessarily mean that it will lead to health and economic goods in the 'real world'. It is often claimed that GM technology could solve the world food crisis, but this would not happen without parallel reform of food distribution systems both politically and economically. You could argue in the same way that a similar change would be possible if everybody in the world became a vegetarian.

The final assumption is a strange one and is reflected at times on both sides of the debate. That is the image of one all-encompassing 'Science'. Of course when you talk to individuals they will reflect that GM research is a small part of biotechnology, which in turn is one part of an extremely diverse field of activities which occur in the name of 'science'. Yet at an organisational level, and within the polarised debate, a level of doubt expressed about the safety or societal worth of GM can quickly be translated into a pronouncement which is anti-GM and therefore anti-laboratory research and consequently anti-science - see this brilliant blog post from Jack Stilgoe critiquing the term 'anti-science'. This feature of the debate is particularly troubling when you consider that scepticism is supposed to be an important part of scientific endeavour, helping scientists to refine their ideas and pursue different avenues.

As the examination of this most recent organisational innovation in the GM public debate shows, organisational learning related to techno-science and its publics requires not only the accumulation of new experiences and information, but also the space to reflect upon deeply held assumptions and to learn about other (conflicting) views. Due to organisational structure and the embedded nature of assumptions about science, the more transformative learning that these latter mechanisms could have enabled has not materialised. By indicating that they are open to dialogue these organisations and scientists have opened up opportunities for future learning, yet if this dialogue remains strictly on their own terms the outlook is limited.

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