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An inquiry into the delayed publication of government-comissioned research

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by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Blog


 

May 2012

Counting aphids in the pouring rain

What a crazy-busy week! The Queen’s speech included the much-awaited Defamation Bill. The buzzing twitter feed, media calls and blog activity reminded me that back in 2009, when we first shone a light on the chilling effect that libel laws were having on discussions about science and medicine, Sense About Science learned that the reason no Government had been minded to overhaul the laws was that defamation was an obscure area of law and ‘hardly a popular cause’. This week it trended on twitter. It’s been a journey of appalling discovery, taking in not just the now well-known cases against Simon Singh, the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst and the medic Ben Goldacre, but also the removal of scientific papers about lie detectors, the extent of powerful organisations and individuals using libel threats to manage their reputations, the Citizens Advice bureau spending its entire research budget on libel lawyers, and online patient forums being threatened for patients discussing whether treatments work for them. People are continuing to report cases to us and a public interest defence cannot come soon enough. Publication of the Bill today is therefore good news as it means it should complete its passage through Parliament within the year (but there goes my weekend!).

And also this week we saw over 4000 people give their support to the appeal by Rothamsted researchers against protesters’ planned destruction of their GM wheat experiment. Many of those signing were people who have questions and concerns about the use of GM methods but who don’t think that destroying research is the way to answer them. We have struggled to keep up with the questions and comments flying in (and we’re really grateful for the volunteers who have been helping in the office). The researchers at Rothamsted, with other public institute researchers at the John Innes Centre, have been amazing at working through them. What progress away from the pro and anti GM discussions of old, neither of which make much sense. I always found it like being asked are you pro-bicycle. (I find it a good method for a 10 mile journey through the woods on a Spring day and a bad one for travelling from London to a conference in Buenos Aires.)

So yesterday I joined our Campaigns Manager Sile Lane to bring yet another batch of questions to the Rothamsted team. We were met by the Pod Delusion, a brilliant podcast for the bit-science-interested, who came along to record all the responses as we retraced the work that John Pickett’s team had done, from the transformation lab where the DNA was put into wheat cells, to the very very muddy wet fields where the experiment is now. The researchers showed amazing patience as we asked all our questions and fed through others from emails and twitter. But maybe that’s no more than we should have expected from people who count aphids in the pouring rain...