Research to underpin debate

12 March 2014

‘As far as issues relating to science are concerned, you often hear nothing until opponents start releasing worrying facts and figures. This then makes ‘against’ the prevailing emotion in the debate – both public and political.’ These are the words of Henk Jan Ormel, who was a member of the Dutch Lower House when the ERGO programme was being developed. Here he reflects, at the closure of this NWO genetic modification programme, on the scientific–political–public debate.

Ormel was a member of the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture for the Dutch Christian Democrats party (CDA) between 2002 and 2012, as well as being responsible for the Biotechnology portfolio. He is now a senior policy advisor to the Chief Veterinary Officer in the UN agricultural organisation FAO. The recently-ended ERGO (Ecology Regarding Genetically-modified Organisms) programme was set up in response to the political debate on genetic modification. The Dutch Lower House was of the opinion that more scientific research was required to help determine which policy measures were needed if sensible use was to be made of the technology, then and in the future. Policy based on science: it sounds great but, says Ormel, it is much more complicated in practise.

‘Evidence’ is relative

‘There is always a certain distance between science and politics’, says Ormel. ‘They are two separate worlds, and the people in them speak quite different languages. Most politicians have absolutely no affinity with technical subjects, and often barely know what they are talking about.’ This certainly applies to the subject of genetic modification (GM), he continues. For politicians, most of whom have not studied science at all, it is an unknown field. ‘Some think that the world will end if we allow GM; others think that without it we will never be able to feed the growing world population. Such ideas are rarely based on scientific fact, but more often on what lobby groups say and think. And which lobby groups should you listen to? To those whose ideas fit in with the political ideology of your party, of course.’ You can always find a scientific fact in the literature to support your particular ideas, says Ormel. ‘Everyone bandies about the term evidence-based policy’, he says, ’but evidence is really only relative. As a politician, you look for the solutions that suit you.’

This is the background against which the Dutch Lower House was discussing GM at the start of the century, says Ormel. It was clear that there were many different opinions, and many different scientific findings – taken from research carried out all over the world. ‘ERGO was in fact a consensus programme’, says Ormel. ‘We wanted to go beyond the ‘yes it does, no it doesn’t’ argument and put in place a research framework that was relevant to the Netherlands. The idea was that the results would provide a much better foundation for political debate than research randomly picked from elsewhere.’

Long term

Of course, by the time a multi-year research programme produces results, the political climate and its issues have long moved on. ‘That is correct’, replies Ormel, ‘but if you were to base everything on that the Dutch Lower House would never start anything. At that time, there was a majority in the Lower House for starting a research programme. Future politicians would be able to use it, irrespective of the issues of the day, to carry out a discussion that was not purely limited to their ideologies.’ However, Ormel does admit that there was no agreement made on what the Lower House would do with the results. ‘After all, you have no idea what those results will be, and any subsequent parliament must be free to make its own decisions.’

According to Ormel, science is – by definition – about the long term, and a programme like ERGO is always good for the Netherlands. ‘Regardless of what the results are and what is done with them; finding answers to questions is always the right thing to do. The programme was also a valuable boost for Dutch universities and research institutes.’ ERGO was run with no further political intervention which is, says Ormel, the right approach. Neither should politicians request progress updates. ‘Science must be independent and scientists must make their own decisions. For politicians to say that more research into GM is needed is already a significant level of involvement, and it should go no further than that. Otherwise, you have a political debate based on preliminary results, which interferes with the research itself.’

The opposite is also true, says Ormel: researchers do not need to relay preliminary results to politicians as this also results in a debate on ongoing research. ‘I am all for openness and transparency, but not in-depth discussions based on incomplete information.’

Public debate

Things are different now that the programme has come to an end, says the former politician. In fact, now is the time that the Dutch Lower House should be actively requesting information. He believes that the Netherlands Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM) has a role to play in this, as this organisation could form the link between science and politics. Scientists also need to take a more active role. ‘Politics reflects society’, he says, ‘or at least it should. Anything that concerns society will therefore find its way onto the political agenda. Very often, with issues relating to science – such as shale gas at the moment – you hear nothing for a while, until opponents start releasing worrying facts and figures. This then makes ‘against’ the prevailing emotion in the debate – both public and political.’

If you want to widen the discussion, based on valid merits and demerits, then you also need to better inform the general public, argues Ormel. ‘You often see unfounded discussions in the public arena too. It is very worrying, and I think it would help enormously if we could change this. It would be a start if scientists could at least make it clear where there is agreement; what the supporters and opponents both agree on, such as this is what GM is, this is what GM definitely is not, these are the realistic options for Dutch farmers, and this is where we are in research and practise.’ Modern media also has a role to play, says Ormel. ‘You often see exchanges of opinion rather than facts on the Internet‘, he says, ‘but this could also be different. Sometimes a scientist comes along who is able to present his or her research simply and interestingly. They show people that technology is not so complicated or frightening. That is what we need in the GM debate – a kind of André Kuipers for biotechnology.’

This interview is taken from the report ‘ERGO: een terugblik’. The full report (in Dutch), including interviews with other people involved in the programme, is available for downloading.

Source: NWO

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Science area

Social Sciences

Objective

Theme: Sustainable Earth (2007-2010) Collaboration in themes (2011-2014)