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Winners and losers

Is BASF’s retreat from Europe a win for public engagement in science?

There was a brief time in the 1990s when the phrase ‘public understanding of science’, or PUS, triggered the sort of contempt normally reserved for shoplifters and other minor criminals. Its critics were a coalition of interests including academic sociologists, environmental movements and fellow travellers in governments, parliaments and many of us in the media. The principal argument against PUS was not that science shouldn’t be understood by the public but that, in addition, science is something for citizens to be ‘engaged’ in. Taxpayers who fund science, so we said, have a right to suggest what kind of research should be funded and what should be sold in the shops. This is where, crudely speaking, PUS became PEST, or public engagement in science and technology.

Many scientists reacted with considerable horror at the change. They queried why science should be singled out for more public engagement: why not other areas of public policy too? And they predicted that scrutiny by the public would slow discovery and innovation, leading possibly to brain drain. At the same time, many also understood that in a democracy it is hard to argue against scrutiny of public spending. These scientists became advocates of PEST and the impact of our collective efforts, aided by the rise of the internet, has been an unprecedented opening up of publicly funded science.

Fast-forward to today and the chemicals company BASF has said it will no longer try to sell genetically modified produce in Europe. So is BASF’s retreat partly an outcome of the public-engagement agenda? And, if it is, does this mean that public engagement acts as a brake on the development of knowledge and its applications in industry and in society?

In some respects, it is difficult to dispute the view that public engagement in the regulation of GM technology has contributed to BASF’s move. Just look at BASF’s own statement on its decision: “There is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe—from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians,” said BASF board member Stefan Marcinowski. The company will instead focus on what it calls “attractive” markets in the Americas and in Asia.

This is just a polite way of saying that Europe has become an agricultural-biotechnology backwater. This is not only because public opinion is strongly anti-GM, but because politicians have allowed such opinion to shape policymaking and the course of the regulatory process.

Anti-GM campaigners have welcomed the BASF decision, but celebrations have perhaps been a touch more muted than in previous times. For while BASF’s vanquishing is clearly a victory of sorts, the antis face some difficult choices. The Occupy movements around the world will delight in the retreat of a multinational from Europe. However, more mature campaigners will know better. With Europe facing the most serious economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression, even the most hardened anti-GM campaigners know that public funds for knowledge and innovation are scarcer than ever. They know that it is wiser to help industry get its house in order than to scare it away.