Public involvement

Many millions of pounds of public money are invested in scientific research each year, yet there is very little public debate of how it is spent. The Government is actively encouraging scientists to undertake research that may have commercial application and to build links with industry. The production of GM crops and foods and the development of personalised diets are examples of how genetics is being applied in the hope that wealth will be generated through new products. There are important questions about whether sustainable agriculture and public health goals are being well served through the dominance of economic drivers of research. The independence of science is also at stake.

GeneWatch believes that greater debate and public involvement is needed in decisions about research priorities. GeneWatch supports initiatives which facilitate public engagement, such as the 'GM Nation?' debate about the use of GM crops in the UK, and the Human Genetics Commission's Citizens' Inquiry on the National DNA Database.

In 2007/08 we took part in an EC-funded project Participatory Science and Scientific Participation, which investigated the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in decision-making about GM crops and foods. The final report of the project highlighted important principles that CSOs felt needed to be followed when institutions undertake dialogues with the public about issues involving science and technology.

In 2010, the Vice Chair of the Steering Group for the Food Standards Agency's public dialogue on GM crops resigned citing concerns about the impartiality of the FSA. This followed the resignation of GeneWatch's Director. ScienceWise - the Government's centre for public dialogue - confirmed that the FSA's dialogue on GM did not meet its principles. Read the story in the Telegraph.The Observer reported how the biotech industry has helped draft reports on GM crops produced by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Science Minister David Willetts later scrapped this flawed dialogue process.

In 2008-10 we were involved in the EC-funded project Facilitating Alternative Agro-Food Networks. This involved co-operative research, involving CSOs and academics, in five countries. It aimed to find out what helps or hinders local food systems and community food initiatives - such as allotments, box schemes and farmers' markets - and to make policy recommendations.

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