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  • Science and commitment: an alliance under fire


Those who seek to blend science with social commitment run a constant risk of criticism for doing so. The answer lies not in separating the two, but in finding ways of ensuring the integrity of each process through greater transparency.

How compatible are science and social commitment? In principle, at least according to some of the current thinking about science and technology policy, they should be very compatible, particularly in the context of the needs of developing countries.

For example, many argue that a close union between the two must lie at the heart of the 'new social contract' that, they claim, is required between science and society. This was one of the messages to emerge from the World Conference on Science, held in Budapest three years ago. It also forms the core of much current debate about the role of science in promoting sustainable development.

Two recent events, however, underline the extent to which anyone who seeks to create a marriage between the two is entering dangerous territory. The first is the decision by the member countries of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a body intended to summarize the best current scientific thinking about global warming — to replace its outspoken chair, Robert Watson, with an Indian engineer considered, in some people's eyes, to be less inclined to "rock the boat" (see Head of climate panel pushed out).

The second is the criticism — some are already describing it as a 'McCarthyist campaign' — that has been launched at the University of California, Berkeley, against molecular biologist Ignacio Chapela following his allegations that some native maize crops in Mexico have been irreversibly contaminated with material from genetically modified plants.

Global warming and political pressures

Of the two instances, the situation surrounding Watson is perhaps the clearer. An outstanding researcher with a strong track record in climate research, Watson has also been an outspoken proponent of the need to take urgent action to mitigate the impact of human activities on global warming. At one point, he is reported to have described US President George Bush as the "only person" who did not accept the scientific evidence of global warming.

It was the first of these characteristics that earned him the chair of the IPCC. But it was the second that has earned him the emnity of the fossil fuel lobby, characterised for example in a leaked memo forwarded to the White House by the petrochemical giant ExxonMobil, which explicitly raised the question: Can Watson be replaced?

Watson's successor is Rajendra Pachauri, an engineer and economist who heads the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi. No-one including Watson is challenging Pachauri's personal and intellectual integrity. And the United States, which had supported Pachauri having previously withdrawn its support for Watson, can justifiably point to the fact that many developing countries were keen to see one of their members in this influential position — particularly during a period when revised scientific assessments leading to the post-Kyoto targets will be prepared.

Nevertheless, questions have been raised about Pachauri's ability to achieve a consensus among panel members, particularly between developed and developing countries. Furthermore, the political motives behind the US actions risk undermining the scientific credibility of the IPCC at a critical time.

Ironically, in acting as it did, the United States is copying a strategy to which it objected strongly a few years ago, when it complained about the contribution of scientists from non-governmental organisations (including environmentalist organisations) in establishing the IPCC's consensus statements. It will take considerable skill on Pachauri's part to undo the damage to the IPCC's credibility that the US-led action has precipitated.

Transgenic crops in Mexico

Chapela's situation is more complex. The maelstrom, of which he is currently at the centre, originated last November with the publication of a paper in Nature describing evidence that DNA from genetically modified maize could be found in native strains of the crop in a relatively remote region of Mexico. The paper appeared to legitimise widespread protests in Mexico, fanned by environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace, about the threat posed by GM technology to native crops.

Somewhat predictably, the paper came under intense scrutiny — and in some cases vociferous criticism — both from the agricultural industry, aware of the potential damage to its image in Mexico, and the scientific community. Less predictably, some of this scientific criticism appears to have been sufficiently substantive to persuade Nature, having asked Chapela to carry out further experiments, to take the unusual step of withdrawing its support for original paper (see Nature backtracks over GM maize controversy).

A need for transparency

In both Watson's and Chapela's cases, the science and the politics of the issue have become closely entwined. Neither would claim to be neutral about the issues that they are addressing as scientists; Watson does little to hide his own convictions about the urgency of combating global warming, while Chapela has been a leading critic of the commercial sponsorship of biotechnology research in his own department at Berkeley. The issue at stake is (or should be): has their personal commitment skewed their scientific judgement.

So far there has been no evidence of this; certainly none sufficient to cast doubt either over Watson's effectiveness as the chair of IPCC, or Chapela's fundamental competence as a researcher.

It is entirely appropriate that this issue should be raised — just as it is entirely appropriate to challenge the interests that may lie behind any "scientific" advice that is being given to decision-makers. But the solution does not lie in demanding a clear separation between science and commitment. That is the old way of doing things, where scientists could wash their hands of any responsibility for the way in which their results were applied.

If there is to be a new contract between science and society, the real challenge will be to integrate science and commitment, while maintaining the integrity of both. To achieve this will require a greater transparency than had previously been considered necessary.

It would be useful, for example, to know more about the processes that led the Bush administration to withdraw its support of Watson, or the precise disagreements with referees that caused Nature to reconsider its decision to publish the Chapela paper (even though the decision to open the issue to public scrutiny is to be welcomed).

Greater transparency is a small price to pay for a science that remains simultaneously accountable and credible. By increasing the opportunity for democratic intervention, it will also help ensure that such science is genuinely committed to meeting the world's needs, not just the interests of its more powerful actors.

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