Andrew Arbuckle: There’s something to this mad scientist notion after all

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I BLAME comics and cartoons for giving me the wrong impression of scientists.

Throughout my formative years, every tale that involved anything scientific drew a portrait of a mad scientist looking geeky behind a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles as he poured highly-coloured potions from one test tube into a bubbling cauldron, all the while with some speech balloon listing his latest plans to destroy the world.

I wonder how many others have been set off on the wrong track and it is only when reality cuts in, it is realised that those who work in the scientific sector are much like the rest of society.

They tend to be more focussed and believe in the maxim that progress will depend on 99 per cent perspiration and hope the 1 per cent inspiration comes along to get the breakthrough they desire.

So they progress down the path of knowing more and more about less and less, while the rest of society is the opposite and knows less and less about more and more.

They are not naturally demonstrative and that is why, this past week at the World Potato Congress packed with scientists and agronomists, there was a tremor when the audience loudly applauded a former anti- genetic modification (GM) demonstrator who now believes this science will help feed the increased billions who will shortly be living on this planet.

What was unusual in all this was that scientists who are heavily dependent on government funding have normally to keep their heads down on this issue as the current Scottish Government sees GM as a “big no no”.

Mark Lynas, who studied at Edinburgh university, is under no such constraints and he went on to criticise politicians in Scotland for their non-GM policy, saying it was driven by “ignorance and superstition”.

The Scottish Government Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead, who had spoken earlier, had left the hall prior to Lynas’s challenge and so was not directly under fire.

In his speech, the minister had welcomed delegates to Edinburgh using its occasional title as the Athens of the North. “Not” my neighbour who has a grasp of economic matters, whispered, “I hope in a financial sense.” No, the minister was referring to Edinburgh’s role in the Age of Enlightenment, which contrasted completely with Lynas’s view that the politicians were taking this country “back into the Dark Ages”.

Later, when the minister was collared by the press, he gave no hint or even a blink of an eye towards any softening of the anti-GM policy.

We heard the speil that GM would spoil Scotland’s reputation for good, wholesome food and we heard that scientists were busy enough coping with climate change without needing to worry about GM. Let us pass over the possibility that one of the best ways of tackling climate change might be through adopting GM technology.

The present Scottish Government is largely focussed on getting this country turned into an independent state and it is not going to take on any policies that might divert.

So, what might bring about a change in the political mood towards GM? There are few pointers from other countries with democratically elected representatives where the science is moving as fast as possible down that road without any political interference.

However, I believe public opinion has changed from a decade ago when writing a neutral piece about GM would bring in the next postbag, both electronic and snail mail, a clutch of abusive letters.

Now, there is a general acceptance that GM technology is going to come along and it will bring benefits.

It is well past the stage where it was all about finding a variety of a crop that was resistant to weedkiller where the control of that cultivar was firmly in the grasp of a commercial company.

I think most people now realise GM is about expanding the abilities of plants to provide health benefits and about growing crops where no crops have been grown before.

Anyone looking at the burgeoning growth in the pharmaceutical market for health will know that there is a tremendous amount of research going into products that will provide defence against disease or attack infection.

Another speaker at the conference, Professor Julian Ma, from University of London, stated that by using GM technology he believed plant-based vaccines could be developed to fight diseases such as HIV, rabies and some cancers.

If these breakthroughs are possible it seems sad that Scottish science and Scotland generally might miss out.