THE general public needs to understand the difference between an expert and a “ranting entertainer”, says Australia's chief scientist.
Professor Chubb spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday during the annual Science Meets Parliament week in Canberra, when the science community urges federal government and senior political leaders to respect and prioritise science in public policy-making.
In championing the scientific cause, the theme of Professor Chubb’s speech was “aspiring to something magnificent”.
He said he was particularly relentless when the cause and science were both worthy and “I do aim to be consistent”.
“Without science, the world would be heading into an even less happy place than it is now,” he said.
“Without science, we would have too little food to provide for the world, we'd have too little water for agriculture (and) we'd have too little potable water.
“Without science, our health would suffer.
“Without science, our lives, indeed our very lifestyle, would be miserable now and probably beyond repair into the future.
“Acceptance by the community of what scientists do is a critical part of how we build the future we want rather than simply drift along until one just happens along,” he said.
“So working with the community is a key.”
The GM question
On the ongoing public debate around Genetically Modified (GM) crops, Professor Chubb said the scientific community hadn’t tacked the issue effectively enough to help build necessary community confidence.
Despite various GM varieties like corn, canola and soybean being declared safe by federal and international food and health regulators, and produced by farmers for the past two decades globally with no recorded health breaches, consumer resistance to existing or new GM crop varieties remains prominent.
In Australia, State governments like South Australia continue to reinforce bans on GM canola production by comparing it to scientifically unrelated products like asbestos, to drive consumer food safety fears, despite farm leaders urging a science-based policy approach.
Professor Chubb said the GM debate in Australia has not unfolded productively or very constructively during recent years.
He said scientists have not been “out there” engaging the general public “well enough, strongly enough, relentlessly enough, persistently enough (and) patiently enough” on the science and practical performance of GM.
“All of those things need to be explained much better than we have and science has to get in early and engage with the community much more frequently than it did,” he said.
Professor Chubb said another key element of the GM debate was that it’s “easy to frighten”.
“It is easy enough to sow doubt but you need a proper and constructive debate about it,” he said.
“People need to be well informed.
“People need to know and understand the difference between an expert and a ranting entertainer.
“Those sorts of things are really important for us as a nation to address and have a really mature, sophisticated debate about where some of these things will take us.”
Social compact between scientists and communities
Asked whether he had anybody in mind when referring to “ranting entertainers” Professor Chubb said: “I have a very bad memory for names - but I never forget a face.”
He also highlighted comments by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair about public acceptance of science and underpinning morality of new technologies.
“Tony Blair said about a decade ago when he was speaking to the Royal Society of London (and) I paraphrase rather than directly quote, science lets us do more but it doesn't tell us whether doing more is right or wrong, he said.
“He went on to argue that for the community to get maximum benefit from science, there needed to be a renewed social compact between the community and its scientists based on a proper understanding of what science is trying to achieve.
“I think that's an important message.
“It is a message about mutual dependence and there is a high degree of mutual dependence when we think about science and its support in this country.”
Professor Chubb also agreed GM was a key scientific solution to help feed the world’s future population of 9 billion - forecast for 2050 - on diminishing productive resources like arable land and water.
“The fact that our environment is changing, our climate is changing so our capacity to do exactly what we always did and simply increase yield is probably very unlikely,” he said.
“I think we’re going to have to look at new and better ways to do things.
“We’re going to have to look at plants and agriculture more generally, more widely, probably fisheries, too, that can survive in a completely different or substantially different environment from the present one.
“To simply presume that we can go on as we do and meet the requirements we will have by 2050 seems to me to be not a sensible approach to take.
“If we get it right, if we try to get it right, we commit to getting it right and we accept the fact it is a long-term investment to get it right, I believe we can build something truly magnificent.”
Professor Chubb said there was a lot of room to grow in the GM debate for the future - but discussing the technology’s morality required using information from respectable, reasonable sources.
“Have that debate properly and do not just throw doubt in there because you have a particular view and, therefore, you do sow doubt,” he said.
“What the outcome will be I don't know.
“Probably I could speculate and say there would be some things that the community would not want us to do that would be technically possible but would be inappropriate to do.
“There are other things that we probably do need to be able to do but to get there you've got to have the debate.”