Science can’t speak for itself | Consumer ignorance sparks fear so experts need to speak up and dispel misinformation
VANCOUVER — Bob Nichols doesn’t fit the stereotype of a soft spoken, introspective and mild mannered academic.
At the Weed Science Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver in early February, Nichols leapt out of his chair at the back of a conference room and marched to the front to make an impromptu and passionate speech, urging his fellow scientists to take a stance on issues such as biotechnology and pesticide regulations.
“We are not neutral here and should not be neutral in this,” said Nichols, senior director of agricultural research with Cotton Inc., a cotton research and promotional organization.
“If something really is safe and can be used, then we need to let the people know that we can use it.”
Nichols said the world needs transgenic crops, pesticides and new biotechnology such as RNA interference to boost food production.
Academic societies cannot shy away from these controversial topics and the associated ugly politics because scientists have a duty to educate, he added.
“We can’t educate everyone up to the level of a PhD … but we can do a much better job of educating people about the basic science of biology. I think that needs to be a strategic objective of this society,” he said.
“(But) academic communities have been somewhat reticent to bring forward basic elements of education for fear of actually interacting in what would be seen as political discourse.”
Scientists at the Vancouver conference dedicated a morning session to legislation restricting pesticide use, with a focus on cosmetic pesticide bans in Canada.
Manitoba’s ban on lawn and garden pesticides for private and public property is scheduled to take effect next year, with a one year transition period until the legislation is fully enforced.
Five other provinces have already enacted similar bans, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec.
Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy for the weed science society, said the Canadian bans perplex him because they’re based on questionable science.
“We want to see the science speak for itself on whether a product … is safe for use,” he said.
“I read the blogs and things out there on the internet, and we see these non-profit groups … (that) do occasionally misrepresent things with misinformation, fear and anecdote. They don’t let the science speak for itself…. I just think they have it completely wrong and haven’t listened to the facts.”
Takoma Park, Maryland, is the only sizable jurisdiction to pass a cosmetic pesticide ban comparable to restrictions in provinces such as Ontario, according to Beyond Pesticides, a lobby group.
Francois Tardif, a University of Guelph weed science professor, said expectations of personal freedom might explain the politics of pesticides in the United States.
“Maybe they’re a bit more independent, as far as letting the government decide what (citizens) do in (their) house … or property.”
Nichols said pesticide bans are an excellent example of why scientists must speak up.
He said there is a significant chasm between the public’s level of knowledge and the education required to comprehend modern science and technology.
Scientists have a responsibility to bridge the knowledge gap, he added.
“What I’m suggesting is that they (scientists) participate in education.”
He said it’s essential that ordinary citizens have sufficient knowledge of biology and other sciences to distinguish a legitimate health risk from a non-risk.
“We (don’t) want ignorance to become fear because of a lack of basic information.”
Many scientists may instinctively shy away from politics, but Nichols said they create a vacuum when they withdraw from the political arena. Other voices will take advantage of the silence, he added.
“What we’re going to need in the next 50 years is the ability to use molecular biology for plant improvement,” he said.
“We cannot be neutral about this.”