Seed World

A Science Charter for a Precautionary Europe

The last five years in the European Parliament were dark years for science. With anti-vaxxers and chemophobes using the Parliament to run anti-industry campaigns, every week there seemed to be an attack on research and innovation. These populist zealots in Brussels and Strasbourg (illegally) banished an ag-tech company from the dialogue process while they flew in NGO activists from Australia and America to lobby the Parliament. A special PEST Committee was set up to recommend tighter restrictions on the risk assessment process (final vote: 526 votes for, 66 against and 72 abstentions).

Could it get any worse?

The media celebrated the last European elections as, in general, a vote for Europe, but it was not a vote for science and innovation. Quite the opposite. The centre parties melted away and special agenda groups acquired sharper sticks. The Green Parties have grown stronger on the back of the climate and biodiversity campaigns organised in the months leading up to the election.

While some feel there may be certain Greens who might favour sustainable technologies (more than the Social Democrats), my experience says their cosmopolitan perception of agriculture and their prejudice against industry would demand many concessions and few opportunities.

How did this happen?

Agricultural science, technology and innovation are not vote winners. Food prices are low, and the consumer is fed more fear than calories. Within the context of climate change and biodiversity loss, agriculture was framed as a problem, technology as a threat. The research and rural communities were not significant voting blocs, so their sustainability achievements garnered little attention.

Today three motivated activists in a room with a laptop can influence change on a global scale. But maybe science could do the same? Why couldn’t three scientists put the European Court’s decision on CRISPR on the political agenda?

It was time for an experiment. Could scientists leave the lab for the lobby?

The Science Charter

I wrote a Science Charter with ten simple points promoting evidence-based policymaking. I put it in a format EU voters could share, as a meme, on candidate social media pages. Would the Charter generate responses in the political space? Would anti-science MEPs like Michèle Rivasi be forced to react to basic scientific ideals?

My online science communications community responded positively. Within a week the Science Charter was voluntarily translated into 10 languages, from Danish to Slovenian, from Portuguese to Polish, covering 85% of the EU population. I provided candidate lists for each country, a central social media page and guidelines for people to follow.

David Zaruk

Then came the easy part. Get scientists, researchers, technology and innovation supporters, surely 15-20% of the population, to go out and engage in political dialogue in their social media communities. If the activists and NGOs, making up less than 3% of the voting population, could sway public opinion, surely a larger population could make a greater impact.

In the end, this was the hardest part. Outside of France, the Science Charter did not generate much impact in the political dialogue. Like any experiment, it was time to evaluate.

Why did it fail?

There were many possible reasons the Science Charter hashtag did not trend before the Euro-elections.

Passion: Scientists are passionate about their work. Engaging with people who don’t understand the research (or don’t trust them) would not attract them.

Comfort. Outside of ag-tech and chemistry fields, other research domains have yet to feel the effect of technology restrictions. Once stifling precautionary measures begin to bite (hazard-based approach on endocrine disruption, energy cutbacks, biodiversity restrictions, product phase-outs …) and further affect investment, jobs and consumer access, maybe an audience for more evidence-based policy will coalesce.

Influence. My community is active but relatively small. There is no significant science body influencing European media.

Affluence. Western economies are enjoying the benefits of cheap money and rich technology. We can afford more expensive alternatives. Banning single-use plastics means more inefficient glass and wood products – a few more cents on the euro that no one will feel, right?

The M Word. There is a haunting trust deficit (accentuated by the Monsanto Papers) demanding that industry and research be more tightly controlled by governments. The narrative in most media sources is on how the public needs more protection – the precautionary mindset is in its ascendency.

Common sense. It almost seems strange to have to campaign for evidence-based decision-making. Furthermore, everyone has their definition of what is “scientific”. Even the most chemophobic Green Party candidates can claim: “We support the science on climate change”.

How much longer will Europe be able to afford these regulatory chokeholds? Energy and fuel price increases have forced angry citizens to don yellow vests but what will happen when food prices escalate, or the EU can no longer afford to subsidise lower yields. How many more researchers, innovators and investors will have to leave Europe before something like a Science Charter becomes essential?

So, we’ll wait for another five years. More products will be taken off the market, more solutions lost, and a higher burden put on humans and the environment. Maybe Europe 2024 will be ready to discuss a Science Charter.