Devaluing science

A recent article by Jacqueline Rowarth, Professor of Agribusiness at Waikato University, gives a very good summary of this government’s muddled thinking (my words, not hers!) about the value of  science and scientists.

On one hand we have  Minister Joyce trumpeting the importance of science, and attempting to wield some very blunt instruments to ‘encourage’ the teaching and learning of science.   On the other hand, many of the reforms, restructures and pressures we have seen applied to the science communities – the CRIs, universities, research centres and the like – send clear signals to prospective graduates that embarking on a science career in New Zealand is likely to lead one down a very bumpy and uncertain road.

Professor Rowarth points to the compelling need for scientific research in the face of changing conditions brought about by climate change, affecting  human health, primary production , ecosystem management, biosecurity, and much else. She notes that “Top science will be critical. What is required simply does not fit with what the CRIs have been doing over the past few years, as budget cuts have contributed to centralisation at the expense of regional research”.

The latest example of that centralisation programme (in the name, one assumes, of ‘efficiency’) is the AgResearch move to two ‘hubs’ at Lincoln and Massey.  This move puts scientists at some remove from the physical environments that ought to be the subject of their work, and also puts barriers in the way of close and regular interaction between scientists and others with regional knowledge and expertise. ‘Efficiency’ is of little value if it reduces the ability of the science community to be effective.

The centralisation has led directly to resignations from the CRIs, and so a further loss of experience and capacity which has unfortunately been so prevalent over recent years.  Short term cost cutting is a poor tradeoff for damaging our long term prospects for sustainability.

5 thoughts on “Devaluing science

  1. Rural Johnny thanks for the classic example of a straw man argument (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=straw%20man ) by dissmissing the science behind GMO and the 1000s of peer reviewd studies by the leaders in their fields and falling in to the ANTI big business trap you have very effectively proven my argument ,Thanks
    I assume the French study you are refering to is the paper, from a research group led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen ,well I have news for you the Study was retacted and has been as universally scorned as the wakefield study linking vaccines to autusm (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-linking-genetically-modified-corn-to-cancer/ )(http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/lancet-retracts-wakefield-article/)
    please check out the references
    http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/political-ideologies-and-the-anti-gmo-movement/
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-liberals-war-on-science/
    http://leighphillips.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/frankenpolitics-the-left-defence-of-gmos/
    http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/2225-no-health-concerns-for-gmo.html

    I find the greens position on GMO untenable and they will in the future be found to have been on the wrong side of the science just as the right will be found to have been on the wrong side of the climate change debate..

  2. Andy: One of the personal problems we each face in today’s complex world is who to trust when faced with competing expert opinions on issues of significance.

    The rule I use in assessing who is worthy of my trust is to look at the two aspects of trustworthiness. First is that the person knows what they are doing. Second is that they are doing it for the right reasons.

    On the climate change issue, the overwhelming scientific opinion is that climate change is real and that it is caused by us humans. The sheer weight of peer-reviewed scientific articles means that I am compelled to trust that scientists know what they are doing. Are they publishing their reports for the right reasons? Absolutely, saving the planet and humans is a right reason.

    So I absolutely trust the climate scientists. Like you, I have moved from scepticism to acceptance.

    What about the companies promoting GMO science?

    Do they know what they are doing? They clearly know how to use the tools of their trade, but by the fact of their experimental work, they do not know what outcomes to expect from the GM organisms they develop. Take the Monsanto roundup-tolerant corn as an example. Monsanto’s 90-day testing to prove the safety of their GMO corn did not show up any issues. It took a French scientist doing a 2-year study to show that, in fact, there are safety problems with Monsanto’s corn. In late 2012, the scientific paper on that 2-year study was withdrawn by its publisher, apparently at the behest of Monsanto. Which leads in to the second test of trustworthiness – Monsanto are developing GMO products to gain a competitive edge in their products. To me, this is the wrong reason and it is worsened by their apparent involvement in having the negative study withdrawn.

    So I absolutely do not trust Monsanto nor their GM organisms and therefore, maintain an opposition to GMOs.

  3. Andy, unlike just about ANY other country on the planet, we have the ability to market our products as GMO free. That is possible because not only are we actively resisting Monsanto, but because we are an Island, isolated by a large enough moat that we can keep things out if we really want to.

    So it is a point of difference that, whether you or I believe it is harmful or not, gives us a selling point in foreign markets.

    The introduction of GMOs is a “one-way-street”. Once done it is impossible to undo.

    This leads to the question, what is the hurry? Why is there this pressure?

    We have also, the consideration of what the GMO is designed to do. Many of them are designed to allow more intense use of pesticides. This is not something we desire, and it is in the long run, unsustainable.

    The GMO is also (usually) marketed and patented, a single variety, a single genome, and so a monoculture. It has vastly reduced resiliency to evolving natural threats, and so creates a more fragile economy for us.

    Could we eventually bend on something? I can imagine it, in some circumstance, possibly relating to drought tolerance or some similar characteristic.

    However, the point is that there really IS NO HURRY to do this.

    We are pretty close to, if not over, the maximum capacity of agricultural production for New Zealand. We have yet to clean up our streams and rivers, we are making milk powder by burning coal. We have a “monoculture” in terms of industry and that causes us problems in terms of our economy. We can’t feed the whole world, and we should not base our economy so completely on agriculture. Safe market, the world is always going to be short of food, but there will come a time when it cannot pay us for that food.

    It isn’t impossible for me to accept a GMO… and with appropriate safeguards of our rights to use the licensed genome… protection for our farmers, but it is important that we cross that bridge ONLY when we actually reach it, because giving up the other marketing advantage is something we may not want to do anytime soon, and it is, as noted, a “one-way” street.

    BJ

  4. @Andy Thompson

    Andy, good on you for changing your views on climate change and accepting the scientific consensus. But also remember that 50 years ago the scientific consensus was that burning fossil fuels and felling forests willy nilly was “safe”. Science evolves, it is not static.

    As for GMOs, my objection to them is not based on their “safety” in teh usual sense of the word. My objections are based on:

    1) The potential for monopoly corporate control of the world’s food supplies

    2) The negative impact on bio-diversity. What happens if a GM staple crop is so much more productive than its non-GM equivalents that no-one grows anything else, and suddenly it becomes stricken by a disease to which it has no resistance and for which there is no effective means of containing? Think Irish potato famine on a global scale.

  5. I find it ironic that the Greens continue to go on about the value of science and how some of us on the right dont believe in climate change regardless of the fact that 99% of the worlds climate scientists believe in it whilst all the time showing the same ignorance of science and the scientific method when it comes to GM and GMOs
    99% of the worlds scientists happen to believe that GMO is safe along with the EU, UN and many other of the worlds official bodies
    Science isn’t ideological and you cant have your science both ways ,you either believe in the scientific method and or you don’t.
    For the record I have been forced by the science to change my views on climate change and now accept that it is caused by Humans ,I challenge the Left and more especially the Greens to apply the same logic and reasoning to GMOs ,unless you do you can never argue that we have have to believe in climate change based on the science.

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