Various scholars agree that the GM problem has fundamentally been a problem of public perception of risk and acceptance of a new technology. But the various accounts of the debate have offered different and sometimes conflicting views of public perception based on different ideas of the relationship between technoscience and society.
As illustrated by Irwin and Michael (2003), the vision of the relationship between science and society, and this is true also for the GM debate, has oscillated between two poles.
On the one hand there is a more traditional way of conceiving the public’s response towards science and technology as dependent on the level of its scientific literacy (see also Bucchi, 2003, 2004).
On the other hand, there is a more dualistic vision of the relationship between science and society in the sense that science and technology tend to be incorporated within local and familiar contexts where other forms of knowledge are important in shaping people’s identities.
In the context of the GM debate, this second approach – which is today the dominant one – finds its first concrete expression in Uncertain World (Grove-White et al., 1997). According to the authors of Uncertain World (UW), public opposition to GMOs would be due to the contrast between the awareness of the public that human knowledge, including that of experts, is uncertain and an overconfident body language adopted in institutional communication about risk, a communication style that compromises its own credibility.
One of the problems of the interpretation offered in UW is that no evidence is provided of the overconfident institutional behaviour in the GM debate.
A recent analysis of a scientific initiative undertaken between 1986-1993 – that is, before GMOs became a popular issue – actually leads to different conclusions (Moroso, 2009).
The analysis focussed on PROSAMO (Planned Release of Selected and Modified Organisms), a series of experiments jointly funded by the UK government (through the Department of Trade and Industry) and some big multinational companies, which aimed at determining the environmental impact of releasing GMOs in terms of gene transfer and invasiveness.
Access to the archive of PROSAMO and face to face interviews with key participants in this initiative have led to two different but related conclusions: that the concepts of risk and uncertainty need to be conceived as collective constructs that are used strategically in order to pursue various objectives related to the context in which people using them operate; and that the legitimate use of these concepts is bound to the credibility and authority of science and its professionals.
More specifically, through PROSAMO as a scientific process the government and the companies involved were able to contrast the then dominant view within the scientific community that GMOs were safe and to actually emphasise the uncertainty associated with their release.
It was in this way possible for them to justify a relatively slow regulatory regime based on the precautionary principle (PP) that could have important, mainly commercial, implications.
As a finished product, PROSAMO could then be used as an authoritative piece of science to justify the subsequent abandonment of the PP as a regulatory approach, the relaxation of controls and the constitution of a simplified risk-assessment procedure.
These considerations have then stimulated some reflections on the nature and role of regulation in the GM debate.
In particular, it is interesting to note that towards the end of PROSAMO, with the approval of the European Directive 90/220 and the creation of a statutory system of controls as opposed to a voluntary one previously in place, the scientists involved in PROSAMO – and in biotechnology research in general – seemed to progressively lose their confidence in their role in society.
Although interviewees often and explicitly associated this sentiment with the move from a voluntary to a statutory system of controls, the evidence suggested that this move was just the surface of a more significant shift from an epistemic community approach to policy making to a logic of bureaucratic policy (Radaelli, 1999), in which the literal interpretation of rules (as set out by the European Directive) became a solution to political disagreement between different branches of the UK government, namely the DTI, the Department of Environment and the Health and Safety Executive.
>br>As rule following became a political requirement, GMOs became a bureaucratic issue and scientists working on biotechnology almost turned into bureaucrats. Within these changes, the role of scientific expertise in the definition of GMOs decreased and scientists confidence with it.
From this point of view, the way ‘genetic modification’ and ‘GMO’ institutionalised gave rise to new practices and behaviours that turned around GMO as a controversial but nevertheless stable category.
Mario Moroso (Ph.D) works at the National Institute for Health Research, (UK), where he is programme manager for the Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) programme. After a degree in Science of Communication at the University of Bologna, he taught sociology at the University of Exeter, where he was awarded a PhD on the early institutional dynamics characterizing the UK regulatory debate on the release of GMOs into the environment.
Bucchi, M. (2003). Public Understanding of Science. Storia della Scienza. Roma, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. 9: 811-817.
Bucchi, M. (2004). Science in Society: an introduction to social studies of science. London, Routledge.
EEC (1990). “Council Directive on the Deliberate Release to the Environment of Genetically Modified Organisms 90/220/EEC.” Official Journal of the European Communities 8.5.90: L117.
Grove-White, R., P. Macnaghten, et al. (1997). Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public Attitudes in Britain. Lancaster, CSEC, Lancaster University.
Irwin, A. and M. Michael (2003). Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge. Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Moroso, M. (2009). The Institutionalisation of GMOs: Institutional Dynamics in the GM regulatory debate in the UK, 1986-1993. University of Exeter. PhD Thesis.
Radaelli, C. (1999). “The public policy of the European Union: Whither politics of expertise?” Journal of European Pulbic Policy 6(5): 757-774.