The weather outside is frigid while the politics outside are fiery—a good time for us to reflect about our society and its role as we start a new year with an added touch of uncertainty and challenge. As a society we do have choices and we will continue to be active in our discipline and beyond. You’ll note that two of our members, Neal Stewart and Ted Klein, were active participants in a national forum on Genetically Engineered Crops sponsored by National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The complete report (600+ pgs) is surprisingly readable and available at http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/. The conclusions our nationally recognized scientific leaders made were that genetically engineered crops are safe, that the trends of increased yield and trait gains year after year are being realized and often dramatically so in developing economies while they also pointed out the exceptions that weren’t as obvious.
It’s not good enough! We are already familiar with examples of insect, disease, and herbicide resistance developed and in major crop plants and look forward to new developments in specific gene editing technology in plants and animals as a logical continuation of scientific development. These developments are considered in perspective if we’ve spent careers in science where we’ve been exposed to rigorous reviews, spirited discussion, and continued feedback along the way about some of our best ideas that didn’t survive peer reviewed scrutiny and then we moved on. We do have the data to “prove the point” in this report. But we’ll need to go beyond carrying our personal copy of the report on our smart phones or laptops (I’m one click away from the report at all times!). I attended a recent meeting of a civic organization in our community when I was asked informally about my opinion about global warming and genetic engineering. To my own surprise I was able to reply with several brief facts about current conditions compared to the historical record from the ‘beginning’ about global warming. There was discussion, questions, and civil debate with no expectations of a firm ‘conclusion’. Significantly, when I attend events with those same individuals they always make sure I’m within ear range because they want the chance to hear more and continue the discussion even if they may have different opinions. Such discussion offers a teachable moment for all concerned because we both heard views we hadn’t heard before.
Our current societal climate is like no other I’ve experienced over a long career in science, one where some people now view science as a personal threat rather than the more traditional detail rich cornucopia that can veer somewhere between curiosity and boredom for non-scientists. I can relate that among the very best times in my career were those in which I had the least lab space and permanent support staff but a series of interns from Europe and Africa who visited my lab with different and fresh ideas that made every day exciting and worthwhile for my future scientific career and direction. I value the continued contact I have with these individuals who I now consider as professional and personal friends. Their projects changed the direction and efficiency of my own research program in ways that were not initially predictable but had value both in the short and long term. Just this week I shared lunch and a career story with a retired scientist from Pioneer-Dupont. As a young plant breeder at Pioneer Hybrid he recalled a visit from Henry Wallace and Raymond Baker to his research location in which they had asked for some discussion time. Wallace and Baker had national reputations for their business and research accomplishments leading to his expectation that there would be a long lecture about how he had to change his research program to use their ideas and philosophy. To his surprise their question was “give us your ideas about how we should be doing research differently” because we want to learn from you.
As scientists we have little to gain in noting personality flaws and airing our grievances about some of the current popular discourse but everything to gain by active engagement in our science, peer review and especially discussion with our non-technical friends. Yes, this is a great time to be connected with friends who are willing to talk, discuss, debate and occasionally be open to change and ideas that neither of us may have considered in the past. And yes, we may be disturbed about the view of some of our friends but we too will be surprised and pleased when others ask us for our suggestions about how we can improve and grow together.