What Crick and Watson did is they explained the physical basis of heredity, and… At the time, Paul Nurse, a Nobel prize-winning geneticist and now president of the Royal Society was just starting his career.
Now you began working in the field in the 1970s, so this is only 20 years after the discovery. Was their disquiet amongst the public, but also amongst the scientists?
Paul Nurse “Well, there was because, you know, what these technologies were bringing along was that you could now begin to control this fundamental molecule of life, and people were worried about this. They were worried, what if you can clone up pieces of DNA in a bacteria? Let’s say you had a cancer-forming gene and that escaped, the bacteria escaped, would that mean everybody would catch cancer, just like an infectious disease? And, frankly, these concerns are quite legitimate. Everybody was imagining Frankenstein-type outcomes.”
In the post-nuclear age, there was a widespread feeling that scientists had once again taken a step too far.
News reporter “Now, you made the statement there’s no known dangerous organism that has ever been produced by a recombinant DNA experiment. Now just what the hell do you think you’re going to do if they do produce one?”
1975, biologists took an unprecedented step. Aware of the potential dangers, they called a conference in California to decide for themselves whether the technology was safe and how they should proceed.
Paul Nurse “What was interesting is that it was the scientists themselves who recognised this was an issue. It was the scientists themselves who actually put in place a level of restrictions, depending upon the potential danger, so it could be kept under control. So, it was very much led by the scientists asking what should be done, rather than say, the politicians or the public.”
But although the scientists took the initiative at the beginning of the genetic Revolution, they haven’t always been able to control the debate. And nowhere is this clearer than in the controversy over GM crops in this country.
To many scientists, GM crops hold the key to more efficient, more environmentally friendly agriculture, but they’ve been unable to persuade sceptical public of the safety of the technique.
Instead, public opinion has been led by a vigorous anti–GM campaign that started in the 1990s and which has left many people dead set against GM crops. There are fears that the crops may contaminate the environment, or that they may be unsafe to eat. And underlying it all is a feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong about meddling with life at such a basic level.
What do you think of this label, Frankenfoods?
Jonathan Jones “Yes, it’s… I don’t know who came up with it, it was probably the Daily Mail in the mid-‘ 90s. The thing that’s silly about it is that GM is just a method for conferring an improvement on crops. You know, the crops are basically the same, so to suggest there’s anything fundamentally different about them is just stupid.”
The suggestion is that because we can now put genes from an animal, let’s say a cow or jellyfish or whatever it is, into the plant, there’s something unnatural and therefore potentially dangerous about that procedure.
Jonathan Jones “Well, the word unnatural is a real weasel word. I mean, it’s unnatural to treat your kids with antibiotics – it’s natural to let them die – I know which I’d prefer. Agriculture is fundamentally unnatural, whether it’s organic agriculture or high-tech agriculture, conventional agriculture. We are eliminating all the trees and wildlife that used to be there, and planting the plants that we want to have there to provide the stuff we eat. So, the thing we have to ask ourselves is, what’s the least bad way of protecting our crops from disease and pests for reducing the losses caused by weeds?”
As a scientist working on GM crops, you’d expect Jonathan to be a powerful advocate for the technology, but his view is also backed up by a vast body of research that shows it to be safe and effective. So, if GM crops is to have a future in this country, the scientists need to find a better way to persuade the public to share their confidence.
I think that sometimes many scientists, myself included, are genuinely baffled by the public reaction to a new scientific discovery or technique or piece of research. Because I want to believe, deep down, that if we present the evidence and explain it properly, then that’s all you have to do. But, of course, it would be naive to think that that’s the case and I think there are good reasons for that. One is that there is a genuine fear of the unknown, but also I think the idea that science is dangerous. Frankenstein is deeply embedded in our culture.
The way to combat that fear is through effective public engagement. And perhaps surprisingly, one of the best examples of that comes from over 200 years ago and the scientist who, at the time, was perceived to be a dangerous villain.