Paris 2002 - Introduction
Académie d'Agriculture de France
Special session, Friday October 18th, 2002 :
Reconciling Science and Society in agriculture
Fellow of the AAF
It is certainly presumptuous to deal with the theme we tackle to day in a few minutes. For that reason, the prospect of bringing really new ideas and future developments is not likely to be achieved (yet, hope is not necessary to undertaking…) A two day meeting of several hundred participants had been envisaged. It has not been possible to organize it, and it is significant that the obstacle has not been the opposition of civil society, nor the reluctance of our colleagues, but rather the lack of interest of the DGXII, that we did not succeed convincing.
In effect, nowadays, some sort of unease exists between the public and scientists, especially in agriculture (the word being taken in its wider sense, that is, in addition to agriculture strictly speaking, including forestry, agro-industry, and, of course, all accompanying environmental activities). The systematic opposition to GMO's, the gesticulations around the "malbouffe" (a non translatable familiar French word, meaning "badfood" - implicitly carrying the idea that any industrial food is bad), the popularity of "natural" products, the hysterical reactions to the BSE problem, ,and many other symptoms reveal its existence. While in the course of the two last centuries, Science was supposed to spread beneficial effects as removing hunger and creating new, delectable, and safer foods - a noble program, justifying the existence of bodies like ours -, by now, it is common practice to despise industrial food. And as for sanitary risks, although they never have been so small, they now justify extreme dispositions, while the number of law suits bursts out.
This is not specific to agriculture. The same situation arises with health, when a medicine who do not succeed in curing a patient is suspect of bad will in addition of being unprofessional, and often drawn to the Court. The nuclear energy sector, and many others are also often in the same situation. Yet, in agriculture, the public 's attitude is the more surprising as it is linked with a new kind of relations with "Nature". A typical symptom is the fashion of "natural products" - that is, "non technique polluted" products, which implies that food quality has constantly been worsening since the Neolithic. Another one is the frequent reference to the "natural order of landscapes" - while we know how transitory is a landscape in the geological time scale, that "order" in such matters is all but evident, and that landscapes cannot be described as "natural" in any sense. Now this attitude comes out as a denial of René Descartes ambitious project of "taming nature, and possess it", which until recently, used to be the main motive of applied scientists. Ironically, it occurs at the very moment when this project looks less as an utopia, and is beginning to realiz. Of course, this specificity of the phenomenon in the case of agriculture justifies our attention.
In front of such a situation, a reaction is to be expected from scientists. The most "normal" and "natural" attitude would consist for them in despising the public's lack of culture and arrogance: "let them speak of what they know, and let knowledgeable people to decide!". During the 19th and the 20th century, this kind of discourse was functioning perfectly. We have been born in it, and are still bonded to it.
This attitude is not deprived of serious foundations. Obviously, only scientists know about scientific issues. If a mistake must be avoided here, it would certainly be to throw away the baby with the water of the bath, and, for preventing abuses, denying scientists their legitimate power. At the same time, one must admit that such a discourse is not accepted anymore as it used to be. One must understand why, if not for not any other reason, because we must be convincing. And there is a classical principle of rhetoric saying that understanding is a prerequisite to convince.
A track to escape the difficulty could be here the word "power" which came so naturally in the last remark. In effect, rather than metaphysic or ethic, power is the keyword for this issue. Nobody would have sued a Moliere's medicine, simply because nobody would have imagine they had the least power, but to provide consolation to their patients. Nowadays, a modern medicine, or even an African wizard must be careful about the reactions of their patients, because, right or wrong (this why I took the African wizard as an example), the public assumes they have a real power on things. The situation is the same for all scientists: their power was negligible at the beginning of the 19th century, so that these innocuous cranks could be allowed to do all what they wanted, that was not likely to hurt anybody. But the situation is different in the 20th, and even more in the 21st century. Scientific expertise is a big societal stake. This is the very reason for why the question of the relation between Science and Society arises precisely at the very moment when, to the candid happiness of scientists, the taming of nature project appear really feasible. Before, people were indifferent for lack of trust in it. Now, they realize it may succeed, and this leads them expressing their concern.
Now, we have been taught by Montesquieu that the very existence of a power implies a temptation of abuse, with, as a consequence, the necessity of a countervailing power. The deep senses of the surprising public's attitude toward the scientific power may lies there. In particular, the tendency to involve the judges or medias powers - both archetypes of countervailing powers - into the scientific debate bears sense in this respect. At the same time, the creation of a true scientific countervailing power is extremely difficult, because it should involve scientists. Therefore, conflict of interest would arise (as they do actually: We know very well that the "choice of experts" often only reflects the decision already taken). In effect, even in the management of the "republic of sciences" we fall into this pitfall, because many of us are seeking power, and take glory in "controlling science".
For that very reason, we, the Academicians, have a role to play. We are too old to be really interested by these power roles, and we can be more objective than many of our younger colleagues.
Yet, we do not have any institutional solution ready. We have the feeling that the solution must be sought for into different roles being ascribed to scientists and their countervailing authorities - as for instance, in judicial institutions, a different role is assigned to the judge and to the prosecutor - although both of them are jurists. The situation of the food scientist, and of the judge or the prosecutor are not exactly the same, however, and the perfect functioning of justice, on the other hand, is still to be demonstrated.
But perhaps our invited orators will cast light on these difficult questions ?
Ms Claire Marris is a sociologist. She will present the outcome of some of her surveys, through which she tried understanding the reactions of various population layers, first the "lay people", the average citizen, then, the top research managers, those holding scientific power, and who often are far from being aware of the reality of the situation.
Dr Cauderon is too well known for being presented. He is a former "secretary" of this company, that is, the person who make the system working. But above all, he was one of the actors of the plant breeding epopee in France after the second world war, and certainly not the least. He will bring us his experience, and communicates his observations about the GMO problem, which has been for long a subject of concern to him.
Dr Paillotin is a former president of INRA, the main research institution in agriculture in France . He used to be a researcher in the nuclear research institution, and, presently, he is president of the agricultural university in Paris. He was president of INRA at the time of the "mad cow crisis", and, as such, he had to manage the relations between INRA and the French medias. If for no other reasons, he is perfectly qualified to explain us the difficulty of transmitting a true "scientific" message (with the implied mix of certainty and uncertainties) to medias only preoccupied of "black and white" statements.
I give them the floor.