Thanks jetgirl! For me, this is another great question. And this is not just in terms of GM. It’s a key query more generally, how much money is going into supporting different kinds of technology? For instance, most people don’t realise that roughly one third of UK public support for research and development is in some way related to military or security applications. I wonder how much support for this there would be, if the country were to vote on the key research priorities on which such money should be spent?
Things become especially tricky to answer, as we focus on more specific areas like GM – and when we include (as we should) the relatively large amounts of money being spent by commercial business. And we should also take account of how muc is being spent in the rest of the world, in order to judge where the UK might best make a distinctive contribution.
There’s a huge amount of statistics out there on ‘research and development spend’ and it can get very complicated. But – as I know from quite a bit of research into this – the surprising bottom line is, that we cannot give a firm answer to your question – even in the narrow terms of the pattern of spending in UK public money. A similar picture is true elsewhere. How much the world spends on different technologies and why, is very opaque.
It’s not just me saying this. I gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology a couple of years back on exactly this point – including the question of how much is being spent on GM food compared to the other innovation strategies that folk have been discussing in this Forum (and that I listed in an earlier answer). The Select Committee agreed that it is actually not possible at the moment to say with any confidence, how much the UK is spending in any one specific area compared to any other.
I think this problem illustrates very nicely a key general point I’ve tried to make several times in these discussions. This is, that questions like this over support for different innovation pathways is actually highly political – like the balance of spending on GM or marker assisted breeding, or conventional mutagenesis or open source or participatory breeding or ecological farming.
Yet (unlike areas like health or welfare or education), we tend to think of science and technology as a relatively technical non-political matter. It tends to be seen as something for expert analysis, not policy debate. The problem here is not only that we don’t decide research issues democratically. We don’t even provide ourselves with the information that we need, in order to be responsible, deliberate and accountable about the choices of directions for research.
So: the lack of clarity on how much of the UK research pie goes to GM, is just one instance of a bigger problem. But where the issues are as controversial and high stakes as they are on GM, it is especially problematic that these decisions are so closed.
In the UK, the easiest way to get a strong career as an research scientist in a University is to publish a lot of research papers in the top journals, Nature or Science, with you as the main author and / or the one who put the idea together. This favours research on well focussed problems, in quite small teams, which works well for molecular biology (including GM, drug development etc). Research on other farming techniques takes more people and skills, takes longer. It’s not seen as ‘fundamental research’ that is seen as scientifically sexy by the top journals, and is not a subject that’s seen as popular by the very brightest students. It’s not surprising that agricultural research has declined in our Universities, and that a lot of key skills, like soil science, seem to be in decline.
So turn the question round, If you wanted a career in science, would you choose to work on farming techniques, or some new area of cutting edge science, where career prospects may be so much brighter?