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GE research probes community and scientists' views

2 December 2004

GE research probes community and scientists' views

A 'rethink' is needed about the risks of genetic engineering and how the issue is debated in society, says researchers in Victoria University's Environmental Studies Programme in a major report.

The 18-month study was completed in mid 2004. The final report, Hands Across the Water, is now available and is being distributed to participants, interest groups and the public. The Ministry of Research, Science & Technology, funded the project under a two-year “Dialogue” programme to improve communication between scientists and the community.

The researchers, Karen Cronin, Research Fellow in Environmental Studies and Dr Laurie Jackson, Director of the Environmental Studies Programme in the School of Earth Sciences, interviewed more than 60 scientists and members of community interest groups. They asked them how they saw the risks of GM technology and what they thought about the quality of public debate on this issue, and around science issues generally.

They found a significant ‘crossover’ in opinion between scientists and the community about the risks of GM, why it is being developed, who will benefit, and how we should make decisions about its use. In some respects, there were greater differences within the science sector than between the science sector and the general public.

Ms Cronin: “We found scientists and community people who were aware of this dilemma themselves and could see a gap between the public construction of the GM debate – and the positions they are expected to adopt in that arena – and their actual position. People from both ‘sides’ were looking for a new space in which to engage in debate and take the issue forward.”

Dr Jackson: “The GE debate is often seen as a conflict between ‘science, facts and rationality’ on the one hand – and ‘irrationality, fears and emotion’ on the other. We have seen that scientists are strongly motivated to do work that is good for the environment and society, and want to be respected as ethical and responsible people. On the other hand, the public is asking challenging questions about the social usefulness of some forms of biotechnology and wants to see reliable scientific information on its potential effects.”

There were recognisable differences between the two groups, with scientists generally more supportive of GM than the community. But underneath these ‘public positions’, the researchers found some surprising results: Many scientists expressed concern about the potential effects of GM on the environment and society, and raised questions about the ethical dimensions; Members of community interest groups clearly valued some uses of GM technology, especially in the medical area. But they wanted more science funding to investigate the effects of GM, and called for greater use of risk management principles in decision-making; Both groups showed greater support for keeping GMOs under contained conditions, than for the release of GMOs into the environment; Many scientists said that, ultimately, technology decisions have to be made by society; Both groups expressed concerns about the economic pressures driving science and technology choices in New Zealand; and Both scientists and community interest group members were critical of the quality of debate in New Zealand about GM - and science issues generally. This included criticism of the news media. They called for better processes for public dialogue and input into government decision-making.

Ms Cronin says the study indicates how science communication might be improved in future, which will be essential in the face of emerging new developments, such as nanotechnology. It also gives an insight into the dynamics that may drive other major public debates in New Zealand, especially those with a strong values component.

Dr Jackson says social conflict over science could be reduced, through identifying social and economic criteria that the community can endorse before technologies are developed and put into in the marketplace.

The report will be discussed with science organisations, and community interest groups, in an outreach programme in the first half of 2005.

A seminar for the news media, to discuss this research and issues around science reporting generally, is also planned next year. If you want to take part, please contact us at the address below.

The full report, Hands Across the Water – developing dialogue between stakeholders in the New Zealand biotechnology debate is available on the Victoria University website and on the MORST website (

Hard copies are available from the Environmental Studies Programme, School of Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington. PO Box 600 Wellington. Email:


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