GM nation? Public debate: a valuable experiment


UK government over-estimated the strength of anti-GM feeling in Britain

As the UK Government moves towards a decision about whether GM crops should be grown commercially in Britain, a major report today (19 February 2004) argues that last summer's Government-sponsored GM Nation? public debate, whilst being both innovative and an important experiment in public engagement, failed to fully meet its potential, and conveyed an overestimate of the strength of anti-GM feeling in the UK.

The report was prepared by a team of independent academic researchers given unique behind-the-scenes access to the planning and implementation of the debate.

Detailed findings of the evaluation team included the following:

  • GM Nation? was an innovative experiment in public engagement on a difficult and highly contentious topic
  • Many of the participants in the debate found it a meaningful and valuable exercise but were sceptical about the impact it would have upon government policy
  • The debate was insufficiently resourced in terms of money, time and expertise
  • By and large the debate failed to engage the uncommitted public (one of its key objectives)

The core evaluation team comprised researchers from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia and the Institute of Food Research. Tom Horlick-Jones of Cardiff University, team leader of the evaluation project said:

"We spent twelve months gathering data on virtually every aspect of the debate. Our report tells a story of successes and failures. We recognise that the debate was an enormously important experiment, from the point of view of extending and enriching the democratic process, but this is just the start. Now is the time to start to learn the lessons on how to do this sort of thing more effectively."

He added: "The devil really is in the detail here. It's no good announcing a public debate, setting up a board to oversee it, and then to throw money at it. These things need careful design, they need not to be rushed, and they probably need a little more money íV but that money has to be well spent."

The evaluation team also unveiled today a major (UEA/MORI) survey of British public opinion on GM food and crops, conducted immediately after the end of the GM Nation? debate. Key findings include:

  • Overall opposition to GM food was found to be 36% against, while 13% supported and about two in five (39%) neither supported nor opposed GM food.
  • A large majority (85%) thought that we don't know enough about the potential long-term effects of GM food on our health.
  • However four in ten or more also agreed that GM crops could hold a range of future benefits, for the environment (44%), consumers (45%), and those in developing countries (56%).
  • There were very high levels of agreement (79%) that organisations separate from government are needed to regulate GM food.

Professor Nick Pidgeon of the University of East Anglia, the Director of the research consortium that carried out the evaluation work said: "Despite many of the problems that GM Nation? faced the results of our survey broadly mirror a number of the key conclusions of the debate Steering Board, particularly regarding the widespread levels of concern across Britain about the risks of this technology and the need for independent regulation of the technology. However, our results also show that the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops amongst the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings."

The evaluators concluded that the GM Nation? public debate provided valuable lessons about how and how not to conduct future such debates in the UK.

The report will be discussed at a meeting today (19 February 2004) to be held at the British Academy in London.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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